Transcription of CBC Sunday Morning Feature on Arthur Kroker

CBC Sunday morning. July 23, 1995. Repeat of an earlier broadcast.

Ira meets up with a guy who's been called the McLuhan of the nineties, technology critic Arthur Kroker. Jack Kerouac meets cyberpunk.

Here are some facts you should know about Arthur Kroker. He's 49 years old. He grew up in the small northern Ontario mill town of Red Rock. He left there at age 17 to join a seminary. He wanted to become a priest. He's a tenured faculty member at Concordia University. He teaches political theory from a leftist perspective. He and his wife and longtime collaborator Marilouise live in a comfortable renovated house in downtown Montreal. They don't own a car. Do you think you're getting the picture?

Well, here are some other facts you should know about Arthur Kroker. [CD sounds]. A couple of years ago he put out a CD called Spasm, full of bizarre, electroncially sampled music. [CD sounds] He took the CD on the road with a band called Sex Without Secretions. He and Marilouise write a lot about sex of various kinds. They publish an electronic journal. Arthur likes to wear leather. Cutting edge writers and artists across North America consider him to be on the vanguard of postmodern culture. He gets invited to speak all over the world. And that's because Arthur Kroker may be the most interesting thinker about culture and technology that this country has produced since Marshall McLuhan. [CD sounds] Which is why if you're going to paint a true picture of Arthur Kroker, you'll need a very wide canvas and lots of paint.

[Part of Kroker lecture]

And that's what people at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University discovered last week when Arthur and Marilouise Kroker came to speak. They'd been invited there by the Art Department. About a hundred and fifty faculty and curious students were on hand. There was a smattering of nose rings and day glo hair and an attractive young couple in full formal wedding attire participating in their own performance art project. Few people in the crowd knew very much about these Canadian visitors. Most were anticipating the usual sort of art lecture, a heavy dose of theory mixed with a few slides.

[Excerpt from performance]

What they got instead was a multi-media assault called "Stories for the Flesh Eating Nineties" featuring such tales as "Dead dogs and daddies under the Christmas tree," "Shopping for Jesus," and "Las Vegas Theme Park" all served up by the middle aged couple dressed in black at the front of the hall.

[Excerpt from performance]

And when it was over, a generally enthusiastic response, especially from the guy in the white wedding suit. "It was theoretical without sorting hitting you over the head with it. So I enjoyed the poetics of the way they present their stuff. Yeah, I thought it was great. You know, it's like Jack Kerouac meets theorist meets cyberpunk." Jack Kerouac meets theorist meets cyberpunk. Right on. Give that man an A and a new suit.

And Stephen Kurtz, who teaches art at Carnegie-Mellon, well he thinks that there are a couple reasons why the Krokers command our attention. "First they deal with the cutting edge of culture. They're right there where it's developing the fastest and at it's highest velocity. The second one is, is that when they do theory they never do theory in and of itself. It's not something that just exists in an abstract form. It's always grounded in a specific situational experience that comes out of the postmodern experience. So for those two reasons I think they're the ones to pay attention to."

It's hard to know where to begin assessing the work of Arthur Kroker, but since the word has already come up, let's start with Kroker the postmodern theorist. If you've never really understood what postmodern means, well you're not alone. At the simplest level, postmodernists view culture as a commodity. And all commodities have roughly the same value. So the knockoff landscape on the motel room wall assumes the same cultural significance as a Picasso or your microwave oven. And postmodern detectives like Arthur Kroker can discover deep meaning in the most unlikely places.

AK: Shopping the Gap with Nietzsche Got a game I like to play. Like to see how far I can get into the Gap before a salesclerk says "Hi, how are you?" MK: Nietzsche wears jeans, you bet. A pre Gap kind of guy. geneology of ... age when philosophy couldn't be in relaxed, slim or . Where people hadn't yet learned how to respond. By shopping at the Gap, circulating among all the black and the beige and the navy and the white. Within the Gap it's post-Nietzsche because it's about the post human body.

AK: We finally got that Gap theory as a result of visiting and shopping at the Gap for many, many times. And one time we just finally understood what this experience was about. That the Gap in fact was a great metaphor for the end of the twentieth century. You know, no cuts, no transgressions, no disturbances, no gaps, the perfect kind of Nietzschean terrain.

[More from CD sounds of Shopping the Gap]

Post modernism is an acquired taste. Some of its academic proponents have invented a vocabulary that most native English speakers find incomprehensible. Listen to this for example. "The fusion of the lawn care specialist and the beautician creates the unconsciousness of post-hoc suburban life. The aestheticization of all the post lawns as the ruling metaphysic then of the new middle class." That's from Arthur Kroker's book Panic Encyclopedia: the Definitive Guide to the Postmodern Scene. It's writing like this that's helped keep him off the best seller list for years, and that's too bad, because strip away all the postmodern bafflegab and Arthur Kroker has some very important things to say about Canada, technology, and our future.

AK: From my perspective, to be Canadian and to maintain the possibility of it as Canada, possibility of social justice, and of forms of democracy, and of living in a multicultural communities in this country, behooves us to think very deeply about the meaning of technology and to develop a critical perspective on the social, economic, and cultural consequences of that technology. This ruling class basically always wants to say "Adapt or your toast." That we have no, that there's no possibility to think critically about technologies and that we have no, there are no alternatives as to what is presented to us. I think that's just a direct kind of lie, you know that serves power, and all of my thought is an attempt to tell lies for what they are, and to open up possibilities for a thinking technology. For myself it's to begin to think about what is the Canadian identity.

Arthur Kroker began writing about Canada and technology more than a decade ago. His first book, Technology and the Canadian Mind explored the works of three great Canadian thinkers Harold Innis, George Grant, and of course Marshall McLuhan.

[Excerpt from McLuhan]

Arthur Kroker has been called the McLuhan of the nineties. There are many differences between the two men but there are also some striking parallels. Both were academics who achieved notoriety outside the university. Neither were particularly popular among their academic colleagues. Both wrote unconventional books that were largely unreadable. Kroker says that McLuhan's writings about the dark side of technology were formative influences on his thinking, but only up to a point.

AK: McLuhan had a problem at the end of his life. It's that McLuhan forgot progressively his critique of technology and put more and more of his thought into the service of technological liberalism. And so the McLuhan that gets known is the McLuhan that has these happy, plucky things to say about the happy futures of technology, which I think at the end of his life betrays in fact his own intellectual and certainly deeply moral and deeply ethical legacy in understanding technology. So at that point my thought certainly departs from McLuhan because I'm not putting my thought in the service of the virtual class, that's for sure.

Q. McLuhan didn't like to talk about whether technology was good or bad, he talked about the services of technologies and disservices of technologies, but you obviously are not afraid to take a stand on the good and bad parts of technologies. Is this part of what you see your goal as being?

AK: Yeah, for myself I definitely make ethical judgments on what I see to be the consequences of technology that I view as good for human beings, and consequences that I think are not bad, I believe them in fact to be diabolically evil, and I think evil is loosed in the world in good part through the language and discourse and brutal actions on those who control the new digital technologies.

"The present challenge, as we all know, is to contain the explosion of public service expenditures and to put an end to the perverse side effect of the welfare state." That's Andre Berard, Chairman and CEO of the National Bank of Canada, speaking to the Canadian Club in Ottawa on Tuesday. His speech was called, "What's good for Canada." It turns out that what's good for Canada is good for business -- decentralization, deregulation, for profit medicine. It was one of those tighten our belts, time to make tough choices speeches we've come to expect from our million dollar a year CEOs. And Arthur Kroker would say it's typical of the ideology of the new elite of the digital revolution. In his latest book, Data Trash, published last fall, he labels this group the virtual class.

AK: The virtual class is a term that I would give to the new technological class. The virtual class is the class that comes to power on the back of cyberspace or the internet and they're not confined to the internet by any means, they're simply the class that expresses the dominant interests of information technology. And you know the key terms for this would be things like "Well, it's time for real austerity budgets" and austerity budgets mean, of course, bludgeoning the old working class and bludgeoning the widespread but still old forms of the middle class, and really shifting the economic pie so that most of the public monies are going to go into high tech industries, which will involve much less labour. And then try to minimize any public discussion, and hey, what happens in a society when you don't have work for the population in that society.

AB: "In the history of this country, businesses and industries have had boom times before disappearing. Regions were once well populated and then abandoned. If a region or a lifestyle can barely survive on massive transfers from citizens in other parts of the country, should it be maintained at any cost? Are we acting in the best interests of Canadians by maintaining the existence of such regions?"

AK: There's a process of virtualization that is going on. Virtualization means that we're moving to a society that requires really less labour and more things in human experience, more people are rendered surplus. So we really have not only the notion, not only the development of a surplus class all through the world. But now I believe at the end of the twentieth century we have surplus countries, like a lot of countries in Africa, a lot of countries in Asia are surplus to the continued functioning of technological culture.

Alvin Toffler: "We're living in a world where the rules are set by the second wave." The virtual class speaks through many voices, bank presidents, politicians, and theorists like Alvin Toffler, who was in Toronto recently speaking to a conference of business leaders. AT: "So what we're going around saying is those of you who are in third wave sectors of the economy have certain common interests, and that there ought to be a third wave consciousness." Toffler has recently been collaborating with U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich. Together they're promoting cyberspace as the source of the new American dream -- a computer in every home, a population wired to the electronic highway. But Arthur Kroker says the virtual class may speak the language of access and democracy, but the real purpose is quite different.

AK: This class is working two agendas all at the same time. Their most immediate agenda is what I would call an ideology of facilitation. They say "Come on aboard the information superhighway," and who would be an idiot to refuse what they're offering. Because they say it's going to provide global access, it's going to provide global communication, so it's a whole ideology of facilitation that feeds on what is really an admirable trait in people, which is to think that technologies contain the possibilities for utopias, you know that there are really new possibilities for a new form of humanism that comes out of technology. But as soon as they've got us interested in the information superhighway and the possibilities, for example, of the internet, then you get in the middle nineteen nineties they begin to deliver the grim message, like Wired magazine came out recently and said, you know, "It's time for the age of the net utopia is over." These were all the kind of hacker communities that wanted to use the internet for creative things and boy, when the Disneys and the Time-Warners get on line, it's time that we deliver the message to the net utopians it's now time to get back to the good old American business of making money on the internet. So really what they want to do now is to do what every media has done before it. And it's something so devastating, that is, to stop our relation to the media of the internet as users and to turn us into passive consumers. And the whole discourse of the information superhighway is to shut down people, this fledgling populous knowledge of ourselves as users of a new electronic media, the consequences of which are unpredictable and really wonderful. And to turn us into passive consumers.

MK: "The Third Right." From Hacking the Future CD.

Arthur Kroker believes it's impossible to escape the effects of technology, and he's not interested in trying. If technology is the beast, Kroker operates from deep inside its belly. From his experiments with electronic music to his journal Ctheory, available only in electronic form, to his constant probing into the digital world, Arthur Kroker spends a lot of time consorting with the enemy. He admits to being interested in technology, interested but not fascinated by it.

AK: Fascination is what tech hype tries to induce in you. This feeling like a numbing of your critical sensibility, and sort of a shutting down of your mind in some ways. And so you then, you're immunity system is broken down in some ways, so you then sort of adopt the perspective of technoutopianism, and by saying I'm interested in it means that my mind is attentive to it, to both its creative possibilities, but also to its dangers itself. But I refuse to be a dishrag for tech-hype.

Q: And yet, I've seen you at, when you're doing the music, I've seen you at the office of Ctheory, you do have, I would use the word fascination when I see you relate to technology and to innovation.

AK: All right, all right, I'd have to admit to, not fascination, but hyper-fascination then. And hyper-fascination would be this. My aesthetic intellectual strategy is sort of a double one all the time. And that is, never to write about things or think about things from the outside but to move into them intensely, and that is to sort of become them as much as possible. But all the time that I'm doing that, I in terms from a critical perspective from understanding technology am distant from the experience. Because I can understand the division between the technology and my own life experience and my own flesh. I'm not an abstracted intellectual, I believe if you're going to write about your culture authentically, that you in fact have to live your culture.

Arthur Kroker is in fact an intellectural who lives within his culture. That means he's prepared to take the risks that go with life outside the ivory tower. Sometimes the results are embarrassing, sometimes illuminating, but they're always worth watching. At the time when the limits of the political and economic debate seem to be constricting, he reminds us there are other possibilities. And at a time when most people are celebrating the triumph of the digital revolution, he reminds us that all technology involves choices, and nothing is inevitable.

AK: We're really living in a phase of grim consolidation. But at the same time, there's a generalized rebellion going on all over the world. When I travel in Western Europe, there's a lot of people who are saying "We're tired of this tech-hype that comes out of Silicon Valley." They export pure American perspectives that are then cloned all over the world. And in Western Europe or in London there's a lot of people who are saying exactly the same thing. We would like to develop from our own national, cultural perspective a perspective that's critical of technology yet at the same time embraces the creative possibilities of the technology. And in Canada the same situation happens. So there's really no question of inevitability because there are no inevitabilities in human history. There's really a human will to resist. And all of my work is in fact about developing maybe a language in the new digital world of the twenty first century, of a language of resistance.

For Sunday Morning, I'm Ira Bassin.

Transcribed by Paul Gingrich, March 21, 1997. Last edited April 9, 1999.

Return to Sociology 304, Winter, 1999.