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UnMarking Amerika

McKenzie Wark, 1999
What becomes of desire? This is the question that animates all of Mark Amerika's work. It's a question of folding and unfolding, implicating and explicating desire, across any and every surface of convenience. Surfaces of music, sex, language, sex, technology, sex....

But desire is not free. The surfaces where it happens are not smooth, are not slippery enough. It is always snagging on something along the way.

This snagging, this catching of desire in something other than its own folds, is what creates its identity, its sense of self. Out of this identity come two processes of channeling it into something other than itself simply becoming itself. One is hierarchy; the other is exchange.

Hierarchy and exchange are the principles of spaces that are not smooth--the spaces of state and market. One thing that's distinctive in Mark Amerika's work is that state and market are not abstract entities. They are the present in the friction of desire working itself out in the most everyday practices. Not just the book and the author, but the sentence and its meaning are constantly snagging on these two kinds of sandpaper space, these unsmooth spaces.

Sometimes Mark Amerika seems to be wanting to become hard and expansive, to erase the book and the author by abrading the sentence itself against these grids, rubbing them away. It's like that famous Situationist text bound in sandpaper covers--designed to wear down anything next to it on the shelf. At other times, it's a matter of making desire fluid enough to ooze through the cracks in the grid, to become of all things yielding, and disappear into infinitude.

You can find both these strategies in his books, The Kafka Chronicles and Sexual Blood, and in Grammatron, his anti-hypertext work. The way to escape the confrontation between desire turned into identity, caught up in state and market, is to become soft or hard, become a Big Idea or a dribble of come. It's the latter way that usually matters. Everything dribbles and leaks, everything turns to goo. Bits of flesh and metal and various tools don't so much plug together as glom together. Everything turns to cheese.

The 19th-century novel is a snakes-and-ladders game of hierarchy and exchange. Characters are always moving up and down the hierarchy; they are always winning and losing at exchange. This moving-and-losing business is called narrative. The modern novel is about opposing the game, or more usefully, just escaping it. The postmodern novel arrives at the melancholy conclusion that while characters can escape the game, they, the book, and the author take the game with them wherever they go. You can take the player out of the game, but you can't take the game out of the player.

And so, in Kathy Acker and in Mark Amerika, the problem is not how to get the player out of the game, but the game out of the player. This will be a long journey. It's not an inward journey, for that would just reinforce the snag, the bind of identity caught in the grid that shapes it. It has to be a journey outward.

So there is always a gesture toward justice (sometimes just a jest) to the Big Idea, the hard, pure abstract concept, the crystal plane that is one way not to get caught up in state and market. But mostly it's down the rabbit hole and away. Working like the old mole, underground, snuffling the dank and the earth, undermining the foundations. Mark Amerika is a pilgrim without progress, just escape, an escape that unsnags desire, so that desire might find the most infinitesimal crack through which to spurt, gush, or drip. It's an unmarking of Amerika, erasing the signs or rotting the paper out from underneath.

It's not enough, this process, if it just happens within the borders of the page. On the other side of that border still are hierarchy and exchange. It's not enough to be a writer any more. Even if the writer or the artist is Political or whatever. If it stops at the border of the page or the institution that maintains the border of the page, then it's tame.

Indeed, art and writing that maintain an identity of being Political are usually completely snagged on hierarchy and exchange. They no longer become what they signify. They become just signs that can be exchanged and ranked for their meaning. So alongside this business of the leaky, drippy writing that happens within the space of the text, there is also the problem of writing the space itself. Writing it not just in words, but in tools, relations, circuits.

Here comes the Big Idea side of the escape plan again: conceptualize writing as a material practice. One that is about putting together words and readings and writers and readers in new spaces--ones that are still smooth enough for desire to unfold in them with a little less friction, a little less drag, and a consequent lowering of the coefficient of identity.

If there is an ethic in Mark Amerika's work, it is: seek virtuality. Seek out the zones where desire makes itself out of itself, folding and unfolding, not where it is shaped and shadowed by hierarchy and exchange. Left to its own devices, desire is plug'n'play. It disaggregates, unfurling elements that can enter into any and every possible relation, which then reassemble from the smallest unit to a new aggregate.

Which is what happens sometimes in PHON:E:ME. Palettes of sound, of voice, selections and combinations from those palettes that suggest not an ideal form of art object (classicism) or ideal being of artistic subject (romanticism), but a zone of virtuality, here in the folding and unfolding of sense and nonsense.

The thing of it is, desire cannot really come into itself negatively. As soon as it knows itself only to the extent that it is negated by state or market, made over in the latter's image, it is no longer desire. It is the mirror of identity reflecting the powers that be. The mirror of identity is the mirror of the sign, representation, and meaning. It is the mirror that speaks truth to power--the traditional function of the Political artist or intellectual. But this truth is only the mirror of power, a representation of it, its alter ego, its negative image.

Desire, left to its own devices, which are any and every device it lays its sweaty, sticky hand on, is not interested in representations and their meaning. It interests itself in the materiality of signs, their expressive potential to differentiate and permutate. Sometimes this is a matter of breaking up representation into minimal units, not to fracture meaning and replace it with fragmentation, but to release the potential polyvalence of any material sign, from a color to a note to a phoneme.

What I like about the Mark Amerika and Brendan Palmer collaborations for PHON:E:ME is the way the voice contributes the occasional Big Idea--a flat plane that unfolds a horizon in which the sound might possibly come into being while it glops and goops its way through the analog circuitry Palmer plugs and plays to make it so. The sound has its own momentum, chugging and squawking, making itself out of itself, to which Palmer adds the odd tweak and nuzzle, twisting the plane this way and that. The plane upon which the sound materializes is smooth, but not even. It has twists and warps, but not grids. It's the sound of art and technology, making itself out of itself.

Art returns to politics and business, to state and market, in this fashion--as an escape down the rabbit hole that pops up again when it has liberated new zones of virtuality. State and market chase after it, trying to capture these flows in the grid of hierarchy and exchange, trying to make art and the artist speak of their meaning, contain themselves in identity. But art, if it has any sense, is down the rabbit hole again, unmarking its borders, erasing its traces.

Every now and then, Mark Amerika pops up somewhere. There is recognition, there is a check in the mail. No artist can exist entirely outside the grid. But he marks the Amerikan landscape with his presence to gesture to what lies somewhere beneath it, hidden in its shadow. Then he's off again, unmarking the way elsewhere.

McKenzie Wark's most recent book is Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, published by Pluto Press Australia <http://socialchange.net.au/pluto/>. With Brad Miller, he co-produced the multimedia work Planet of Noise <http://sysx.apana.org.au/pon>. He lectures in media studies at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia. <http://www.mcs.mq.edu.au/~mwark>

McKenzie Wark, 1999. First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center for PHON:E:ME.