One of the things that has often frustrated me about Continental political theory is that I find in it a tendency to focus on the content of concepts, positions, and arguments to the detriment of the form through which these positions are articulated. Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not simply to represent the world, but to change the world. Part of the production of this change involves having good concepts, arguments, and the right positions. However, if these concepts do not circulate around the world, if they remain cloistered within our skulls or accessible to only a select group of elite individuals, then these concepts do little to change the world.

The form of a discourse, as well as its materiality, matters every bit as much as the content of that discourse. It is not enough to simply have the right ideas or the just position. If that position does not take place in some sort of material inscription, if it does not have the right sort of form, it is unable to in-form at all. That is, it remains incapable of producing any difference outside of the small and select group of elites capable of receiving the message. Where the form is lacking, one suspects that the theoretical engagement is akin to an obsessional exercise, where the obsessional is perpetually preparing to go after the object of desire but in such a way that all of his acts are designed to insure that everything remains exactly as it has always been. In other words, the obsessional form of activity is designed to insure that nothing changes regardless of what the obsessional claims at the level of the content of his discourse. It is here the form of obsessional activity that matters, that is crucial to understanding the obsessional, not the content.

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I think Zizek has understood this. Regardless of what one thinks about Zizek’s positions and arguments, the reader cannot fail to be struck by the form or style of his discourse. In a high theory context where everyone else was analyzing obscure and difficult works of literature with respect to their own political projects, Zizek “crossed wires”, bringing high theory into immediate contact with vulgar popular culture. However, in addition to this, Zizek’s style is designed to directly affect the nervous system through the production of affects like surprise, shock, outrage, and mirth, all of which are so foreign to standard high theory treatises. I am not suggesting that Zizek has produced change or that he has theorized the right sort of change, but that the form of his discourse at least increases its chances of circulation and the possibility of producing differences in the world… Even if those differences are very different than the differences Zizek or his followers might like or anticipate.

Reflect on this difference between content, form, and materiality years ago, I was led to declare that writing is not just about something, but perhaps more importantly, writing is something. In addition to the content of a writing, there is the material reality of its taking place and its status as an artifact that circulates throughout the world beyond the author. This attentiveness to the “taking place” of writing or its status as a material trace, I began to direct increasing attention to channels of communication and the role they play in the formation of group relations. If it is not simply the content that is important, but also the inscription of a content as something that comes to stand on its own, then networks and technologies through which a technology is circulated become of crucial importance to questions of political change.

I suspect that Marshall McLuhan was getting at something like this with his cryptic declaration that “the medium is the message”. Towards the beginning of Understanding Media, McLuhan writes that,

[t]he electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no ‘content.’ And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all. For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is noticed as a medium. Then it is not the light but the ‘content’ (or what is really another medium) that is noticed. The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth. (9)

McLuhan’s point is that media such as electricity and electric light– independent of any content they might come to embody –are milieu of individuation or morphogenesis with respect to human beings. As a result of the increased connectivity produced in and through electricity and light, humans become something other and come to relate to their world in a different way.

Over at Dailykos this evening there is an interesting post arguing such a thesis with respect to the internet and the popular uprising unfolding in Iran. Georgia10 writes:

The voting is over in Iran, but the protests have just begun as thousands take to the streets to contest the re-election of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The concept of citizen-selected leadership itself is ancient, but we are witnessing today the latest chapter in how technology is strengthening that democracy, one byte at a time.

One need look no further than the 140-character updates streaming in from Iran on Twitter, the photostreams pouring in on Flickr, and the blossoming Facebook pages to understand and appreciate the revolutionary effect social media has had on how civilizations engage in and react to democracy.

The saying popping up over the last several hours has already become cliche: the revolution will not be televised, it will be Twittered. Stripping away the hyperbole of that statement and we are left with the very real and grounded fact that the way citizens across the world organize, react, and participate has forever been altered by the cornucopia of 21st century mediums, each of which presents a new platform for how citizens interact with and even select their government.

Read the rest here. The point is not that the internet is a panacea, nor that it solves all our problems, nor even that it leads to the desired outcomes. No. The point is that the medium matters and makes a difference in terms of what forms of organization and what sorts of struggle are possible. We do not know how things will shake out in Iran, but there is certainly much to be learned hear regarding how to organize and what tools are available in the name of change.