Megan Eatman on "Tactical Media"

Cover of "Tactical Media": Image of Space and Stars from YouTube Video

Rita Raley

Tactical Media

University of Minnesota Press, 2009
208 pages
$19.50

Reviewed by Megan Eatman

Rita Raley’s Tactical Media focuses on resistant endeavors that critique contemporary geopolitics by both appropriating and disrupting the information flows characteristic of a postindustrial, neoliberal capitalist world order. Drawing heavily on Hardt and Negri’s concept of Empire, Raley suggests that traditional forms of protest are maladapted to a new world order marked by rhizomatic power structures and increasing deterritorialization. Raley refers to these resistant works as “tactical media,” a title that refers to their focus on short-term disruption (tactics) rather than long-term strategies for permanent change. Raley works to define and describe this admittedly mobile category through the discussion of various projects including persuasive games, information visualizations, and public art. Situated at the intersection of conversations on world systems, digital humanities, and public performance, Raley’s text brings attention to under-examined works to make a larger argument about the diverse practices of contemporary resistance and their relation to the broader power structures they occupy.

While Raley notes that tactical media is a “mutable category. . . not meant to be either fixed or exclusive,” she suggests that all tactical media focus on “disturbance,” explained as “the intervention and disruption of a dominant semiotic regime.” Tactical media are always interventions that allow spectators to think critically about situations and systems that they might otherwise take for granted. While the definition is broad, Raley’s examples make clear the various forms this disruption might take. One example is Josh On and Futurefarmers’s They Rule (2000/2004), an interactive map that allows users to track the connections among Fortune 100 corporations and directors by building maps or viewing maps that other users have built. Combining individual and social production of information visualization, They Rule allows users a chance to reclaim the information flows that control so much of their lives. While composed in different media, the Department of Ecological Authoring Tactics, Inc.’s 2005 “border disturbance action” encourages critical thinking in a similar fashion. DoEAT modified the iconic “Caution Watch for People Crossing Road” signs that dot the highways in Southern California, replacing the text with titles like “Wanted,” “Free Market,” “No Benefits,” and “Now Hiring.” These signs, meant to warn drivers about immigrants dodging border checkpoints, instead came to deliver a critique of NAFTA and broader attitudes about immigration.

While the actions described above are temporary and rely heavily on audience response for their effectiveness, Raley suggests that these characteristics are also essential to tactical media. Rather than a long-term strategy with a definite endgame, tactical media is what Raley (following Paolo Virno) labels a “virtuosic performance,” a resistance based in the moment in which the author cedes control of the exact message that the audience will receive. Raley uses the term “performance” to point to the process-over-product nature of these actions; as she explains it, “to conceive of tactical media in terms of performance is to point to a fluidity of its actants, to emphasize its ephemerality, and to shift the weight of emphasis slightly to the audience, which does not simply complete the signifying field of the work but records a memory of the performance.” While Raley notes that incident-based actions “may have a cumulative effect,” she also explains that those effects may be “imperceptible and undesirable;” thus, the core of the action exists in the moment of performance, and this focus distinguishes tactical media from other forms of resistance, which have as their endgame a permanent change in the status quo.

In constructing this definition of tactical media, Raley narrows a fairly substantial category and reworks Michel de Certeau’s “neat alignment of users and tactics, producers and strategy.” Not only are tactical media constructed by “practitioners who write their own scripts and build their own gadgets,” but they also allows for the overlap of user and producer. Even as the architects of tactical media build their interventions, they cede control to users through the action’s ephemerality. Use of tactics, Raley suggests, makes everyone a producer as well as a user.

Tactical Media is organized into chapters based on area of critique: US/Mexico border politics, the War on Terror, and global finance. Each chapter analyzes specific projects and illustrates how those projects relate to the problem in question; for example, how the aforementioned DoEAT border action participates in and complicates the symbolic performance of border control. While all of the chapters contain moments of interesting analysis, Raley’s argument is strongest when she combines world systems theory with media studies to illustrate the procedural rhetoric of resistance. While the chapter on “Virtual War” draws heavily on Baudrillard’s vision of the postmodern world and, as such, retreads some of the conversations on the first and second Gulf Wars, Raley adds to this theory through examination of the procedural rhetoric of anti- war games. The game September 12, for example, disrupts the militarizing process of many persuasive games by making it impossible to win through violence; the best outcome occurs when the player refuses to participate. In discussing this text, Raley emphasizes that an effective intervention is not just a change in content but a change in play protocol. Raley’s discussion of Black Shoals: Stock Market Planetarium is also illuminating. The program’s reliance on stock market data for its visual display makes the artists into speculators who cede control of their work to the market’s fluctuations. Black Shoals and projects like it (for example, John Klima’s ecosystm) are self-sustaining as long as the stock market functions within parameters that the artists’ algorithms can accommodate. In this way, the work critiques capitalist flows even as it relies on them. Black Shoals illustrates the performativity of the stock market by translating the market into public art, a category that audience members are more likely to recognize as performative.

While Raley’s analysis is generally astute, she is not always critical of the texts she examines or the assumptions behind them. Her assertion at the beginning of the book that street-level protest, along with “idealistic belief in the possibility of visible and permanent social change, seems quaint, if even a trifle embarrassing,” may be startling for some readers. This argument has obvious implications for those protestors who cannot access the technology to produce something like Black Shoals. Scattered, small group action is a part of what makes these media “tactical,” but while Hardt and Negri suggest that such scattering will help avoid the construction of a resistant elite, that point is debatable. Raley hints that she is not as optimistic as Hardt and Negri, but does not delve into these issues fully. An increased awareness of the implications of class (as well as the potential limitations of writing off permanent change) could have enriched Raley’s argument.

Tactical Media is a successful recuperative text that opens up space for further scholarly engagement, particularly with issues of performance and digital media. While Raley is focused on situating these actions as responses to an existing world order, her collapse of a wide variety of resistant practices into a category defined by ephemerality encourages a new perspective on more visible actions, from the overtly political (denial of service attacks) to the more playfully disruptive (flash mobs). Raley’s insistence on ephemerality, however, also raises questions about the afterlives of these actions, particularly in a digital environment, where chat logs, game code, and other traces could remain indefinitely. While necessarily narrow in focus, Tactical Media brings to light projects that can shape scholars’ understanding of contemporary resistance and raises questions about how resistant acts respond to the systems in which they are embedded.