Proud to Be Flesh
Diagrammatic Publishing in Mute Magazine
For those capable of attention, [diagrams] are the moments where being is glimpsed smiling.
—Gilles Châtelet, Figuring Space
To publish a magazine is to enter into a heightened relationship with the present moment.
—Gwen Allen, Artists’ Magazines
What is a political magazine? Or to give that question contemporary purchase, what can a political magazine be and do today, in our time of ubiquitous media, when the intermediation of communicative platforms, user-generated content, wikis, blogs, and social media have so thoroughly transformed the publishing environment? This chapter addresses that question through a study of the London-based art, technology, and politics magazine Mute, an experimental “hybrid publishing” venture that tests the limits and potentials of Web, e-publishing, and print platforms alike. As with all the writing and publishing projects discussed in Anti-Book, the politics in question resides not only in the magazine’s content but throughout its media form, for Mute’s signal feature is that since its inception in 1994, it “has regarded message and medium, content and carrier as inherently linked.” Mute’s coverage of the evolving political and aesthetic capacities of digital and online media (among a welter of other topics) has thus intersected with a continual remodeling of its publishing form, a “self-differing” orientation, to use Rosalind Krauss’s term, that is apparent in the title of its 2001 hybrid publishing document: “Ceci n’est pas un magazine” (Plate 10). This chapter pursues the specific ways that Mute has undertaken its critical remodeling, so building up a picture of what I call its “diagrammatic publishing,” an immanent and self-differing media form that operates through the magazine’s publishing platforms, participatory mechanisms, aesthetic styles, editorial and commissioning paradigms, temporal modes, and commercial structures.
The term diagram features in this chapter in two interrelated senses: as a visual means of modeling and as a material form or process. First, diagrams are schematic orderings of graphic and textual materials that seek, through the arrangement of lines, images, and words, to describe and model dynamic relationships. One such visual diagram was developed by Mute to plot, convey, and provoke its move to hybrid publishing, a diagram called “The Magazine That Mistook Its Reader for a Hat!” The chapter concentrates on this publishing diagram; it was incited by Mute’s diagram and takes many of its cues from it. Second, the diagram, as I use it, is a concept developed by Deleuze and Guattari that, in concert with the concept of “assemblage,” seeks to grasp the emergent consistency and agential effects of singular sociomaterial formations, in their concrete and abstract scales, and the means by which these articulate mutually sustaining relations between content and form. It is a concept used to research social phenomena in a manner that wards off the trap of reifying its field, insofar as it attends to breaks as much as to continuities, and seeks at once to map sociomaterial formations and intervene within them. As I plot Mute’s media form, I come to describe it as a diagram in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense, with this aspect of the chapter emerging out of discussion of the magazine’s visual diagram into empirical analysis of its concrete publishing practices. In Mute’s visual diagram, then, there is an indistinction between the two senses of diagram as I use it—graphical modeling and diagrammatic form. If it does not scramble this schematic picture too much, we might say that Mute’s publishing diagram, the central organizing object of this chapter, is a diagram of the magazine becoming a diagram.
The particular features and qualities of Mute’s diagrammatic form will become apparent in due course, but I would like to commence analysis of the magazine with a picture of its general character, for which I will use not a diagram but two metaphors. Metaphors court cliché, but in their capacity to evoke forms, they can also be a first step toward diagrammatic rendering (a thesis I will develop later). The character I want to convey here is one of the political magazine as an immanent mode of publishing, for which I draw first on a metaphor supplied by Antonio Negri, a political philosopher and militant whose work in both domains has been closely associated with periodical publication.
In recounting his experiences in collectively publishing the political journal Futur Antérieur (1989–98), Negri offers a striking appraisal of the nature and purpose of this medium:
A good journal is like an octopus, continually reaching out and pulling in the theoretical and historical happenings in the environment in which it lives. This journal had a soul—a passionate soul which tried to absorb everything in the world around it which offered theoretical interest, a political choice, an ethical dimension, or simply a joy of life. The soul of a journal is its radical determination to give meaning to everything it touches, to build it into a theoretical tendency, to embrace it within a mechanism of practical activity.
From this one can draw out three interrelated traits of magazine immanence. First, the magazine’s “soul” resides in its politicizing content—in conceptual, ethical, and practical dimensions—and, second, in a manner always open to the environment in which it lives, “to everything it touches,” what I will call a passionate immanence to the social world. Elsewhere in this essay, Negri also sketches a number of important if more mundane features, not least of which is the considerable labor and cost involved in production and the theoretical and political conflict that fires editorial practice. In so doing, he starts to take us into the nitty-gritty of magazine publishing, indicating that its immanence to the social world is far from smooth and uncomplicated but rather is produced through assorted and conflictual practices and structures. But for now, let me simply draw from this the third key trait: that the political magazine is very much a textual medium of collective production.
Politicizing content, immanence to the social world, collective production—these are broad traits that will feature throughout my discussion of Mute’s diagrammatic form. But at this stage of the picture, we come up short, for Negri’s metaphors only take us so far: “octopus” and “soul” help convey the reach and passions of a political magazine, yet neither of these metaphors of organic and spiritual life is especially helpful if one seeks to evoke the many and various materialities involved in the composition of a magazine. Moreover, they give the impression of a centralized and integrated entity, an image of the political magazine that I seek here to move away from. Rather than “pulling in,” “absorb[ing] everything” into the magazine’s center, as the image of the octopus so vividly evokes, I want to convey a stronger sense of magazine immanence, something flatter and decentered. To that end, a better metaphor of the magazine can be borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari’s figure of the book as “single page”:
The ideal for a book would be to lay everything out on a plane of exteriority . . . , on a single page, the same sheet: lived events, historical determinations, concepts, individuals, groups, social formations. . . . [A] broken chain of affects and variable speeds, with accelerations and transformations, always in relation with the outside.
As with Negri’s characterization, this single page is a figure of immanence with the social, but unlike the octopus, the page as “plane of exteriority” is radically decentered. They call it a “single” page, but this is in no way unified; it is a broken plane, comprising the outside with no interiority or identity of its own—a plane crisscrossed by concepts, events, groups, peoples, and social formations, it operates “in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.” Yet, still, the metaphor comes up short, because although we have shifted from octopus to the writerly inorganic material of paper—and achieved a compelling image of the magazine as a decentered immanence along the way—this single page offers little purchase on the concrete dimensions of magazine form, the page being only a metaphorical field of encounter or, at most, the field where the encounter is written. Neither have we gained any understanding of the nature of the mutually sustaining exchange between content and form that is so central to Mute and any other self-differing magazine.
We need to move, then, from the metaphors of magazine immanence—octopus and single page—to its concrete practice in Mute magazine, the plotting of which will show how complicated such immanence can actually be.
The European Anti-Wired
The document that first announced Mute’s move into hybrid publishing, “Ceci n’est pas un magazine,” sets up something of a slogan that conveys the extent and manner of its experimental interest in magazine form. This is a magazine; even in Mute’s post-digital incarnation of print, Web, and e-publishing platforms, the editorial group continues to use this category to describe the publishing project as a whole (a convention I adopt here). The declaration “this is not a magazine” does not, then, signify a negation of that medium but rather a self-reflexive critique and problematization of the magazine as media form. It conveys too a critique of identity that pervades the magazine as a whole, a critique that Mute has maintained since inception, and which is a necessary first step in any move to publishing immanence, repelling a center of attraction that would otherwise deter its persistent opening to its outside. In due course I will move to discuss the nature and effects of this reflexive, anti-identitarian critique on Mute’s media form, for that is my primary concern in this chapter, but by way of introduction to Mute, I come to this after some initial reflection on how its anti-identity has been manifest in the magazine’s remit and textual content.
Mute’s long-term editor, Josephine Berry Slater, accounts for the magazine’s rather unusual self-critical orientation by reference to the fine art backgrounds of its founders, Pauline van Mourik Broekman and Simon Worthington, an orientation she describes as a “concerted battle against the dominant logic of specialisation or static identity,” a “refusal to unconditionally embrace a genre, discipline or political position.” But if Mute’s resistance to static identity is driven by a critical sensibility derived from art practice, it is also a product of the particular remit of the magazine, as constituted in mutual exchange with its early textual content. Initially focused on mid-1990s digital arts and the impact of the Internet on the art establishment, Mute quickly came to concentrate on the nature and effects of new technologies across society as a whole, an orientation apparent from the magazine’s early strap line, “Culture and Politics after the Net.” Fascinated by the dramatic changes associated with pervasive computing and digitization, Mute distinguished itself by remaining resolutely critical of the explanatory frameworks, conceptual figures, and inflated political claims of early Net culture—it emerged somewhat as “the European anti-Wired,” in Berry Slater’s crisp formulation. Tracing the now familiar themes of digital democracy, information commons, the prosumer, the creative economy, immaterial labor, and such like, Mute resisted the seductions of identity offered by these conditions and concepts. The magazine preferred instead to position itself—necessarily precariously—on the fault line between the transformative communicational and associational capacities of digital technologies and their proclivity for extending and perfecting the marketization of social relations. Indeed, the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism have increasingly come forward in Mute as a principal focus and explanatory framework. This could have produced a dogmatic or ideological orientation, but rather than a totalizing intellectual structure, the concern with contemporary capitalism has been pursued through an eclectic range of its empirical instantiations. As van Mourik Broekman contends, Mute sought to “treat capitalism as a governing global condition without losing out on the specificity of its manifestations.”
This empirically routed focus on capitalism is the ground—an immanent, mutable, ungrounded ground—for Mute’s critique of identity. For whether concentrating on the class-cleansing “regeneration” of east London, Web 2.0 social media, the commercial deployment of “culture,” precarious labor, the financialization of the art market, or the security structures that underpin liberal models of citizenship, Mute’s understanding of the rapacious dynamics of capital allows for no secure point of critical identity. Indeed, Mute’s common observation is that critical identity tends to perpetuate the structures of domination and exploitation that it nominally opposes. For instance, with regard to the possible role of the artist as critical outsider, an influential Mute article by Anthony Davies and Simon Ford, “Culture Clubs,” traced how, in the period prior to the dotcom crash, art had become one element, along with music, fashion, design, clubbing, and political scenes, that could be “brought together, mediated and repackaged in a range of formats” conducive to entrepreneurial capital. In this neoliberal structure of culture, the “topographical metaphor of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’” upon which much critical art practice has been founded is now not only untenable as a critical paradigm, it becomes a constitutive part of these new commercial mechanisms, for here an apparently critical “outside” actually provides the “marginal” and “socially engaged” art practice upon which culture industries thrive.
Yet Mute’s aim has not been to substitute the subjectivity of the outsider artist with one of an apparently more radical hue: precariat, multitude, cognitariat, self-organized autonomy, the 99 percent, to name some of those who have had ascendancy during Mute’s publishing span. These have some potential to assist in opening critical attention, but they are no less bound to relations of identity and exclusion, as Angela Mitropoulos’s Mute essay “Precari-Us?” astutely observes. While warning against the assumption of “precarity” as a vanguard point of political aggregation under the impetus of a newly precarious middle class, Mitropoulos explains,
Names confer identity as if positing an unconditional presupposition. Like all such assertions, it is not simply the declaration that one has discovered the path to a different future in an existing identity that remains questionable. More problematically, such declarations are invariably the expression and reproduction of a hierarchy of value in relation to others.
Returning from the particular content of Mute’s articles back to its broader remit, it would be a mistake to imagine that the magazine’s critique of identity indicated a pristine critical position abstracted from the messiness of the social world. It is quite the contrary, for interlaced with Mute’s critique of neoliberal social forms is something of a joyous materiality, an orientation held in its longtime strap line “Proud to Be Flesh.” Here we start to make the initial moves from Mute’s critical orientations into its publishing form, from its critique of identity into its critical immanence with the sociomaterial world. Mute’s affirmation of “flesh” may sound a little peculiar, even reactionary—Siegfried Zielinski’s reading of Mute’s term in this way is understandable, though incorrect. It has a particular point of origin, posited against the bloodless myths of “immateriality” that populated the early field of technoculture, be it in Gibsonian notions of cyberspace, Charles Leadbeater’s visions of “living on thin air,” the “frictionless” circuits of finance capital, or postautonomist formulations of immaterial labor. Flesh, here, is sensate matter, an association of bodies, needs, affects—not an ontological opposition to digital technology or a humanist assertion of an inviolate organism but an open biosocial plane with which technology is irrevocably enmeshed. “Flesh,” as van Mourik Broekman confirms, is a stand-in for “material substrates of all kinds.” It is a formulation that was realized aesthetically to great effect on the cover of Mute’s 2009 anthology Proud to Be Flesh, with its highly mediated image of a map of the world rendered in marbled raw red meat (with the book’s spine modeling the meat’s fat layer, thus integrating the book’s codex form with the meat of its cover image). If Negri’s octopus reaches out into its environment, this metaphor of flesh, then, has Mute wholly enmeshed within it; flesh is the substance of the magazine, the material flux of the world with which Mute is fully immanent.
Form and Content
Mute’s publishing form has undergone six major transformations. It began as a broadsheet using the same salmon pink paper stock as the Financial Times and printed on the latter’s London Docklands presses during the machinery’s nighttime test run (Plate 11). The broadsheet presents us with an initial instance of the immanent and anti-identitarian sensibility of Mute’s content and remit becoming expressed in its media form, its understanding of “flesh” taken up in its publishing paradigm. The immediate impression this first manifestation of Mute conveyed was of a disjunction between its “new media” content and graphics and the “old” and establishment media form of the broadsheet, an effect that was accentuated by the deliberate styling on the first British daily newspaper, the Daily Courant (est. 1702), going so far as mimicking the font and presenting the latter’s editorial (concerning the difficulties of launching a new publication) as Mute’s own. This “retro-futurist” gesture served to deflate the technoboosterism of emerging Net culture and sought to “escape a simplistic homologue between ‘radicality’ and cut-up, contemporary design.” More particularly, the broadsheet presented a formal critique of the prevalent rhetoric of immateriality, a move underscored by the paper’s fleshy pink tones, a clear resonance with the paper’s strap line. If Mute was, thus, “Proud to Be Flesh,” this format also drew attention to the socioeconomic structures within which Mute, as any other publishing project, was enmeshed. It is abundantly clear that the Mute broadsheet was only possible by piggybacking on the capital-intensive production process of the Financial Times, and its proximity to such an iconic source of business information produced unsettling associations for any reader who might have imagined that this artifact of new media critique had escaped from the world of capital. For all its inventive and singular style, the Mute broadsheet was, then, very much enmeshed in a world not of its own making and saw its role at a formal level to foreground the material complexities and contradictions of such an existence.
Now that we have an initial example of Mute’s interplay between form and content, this relation can be theorized a little more, and in a way that can be taken up later into the concept of diagrammatic publishing. A first approximation of the form–content relation can be developed with the aid of Krauss’s concept of the “self-differing medium” that I proposed in chapter 1 to be a central dimension of any anti-book. A self-differing medium is constituted when the conventions and structures that determine the medium of a particular artwork are themselves taken up in the work in a fashion that alters those determinations, such that the work comes to specify its own medial conditions and hence becomes self-differing. The medium, then, “is something made, rather than something given,” or made as much as it is given. Significantly for our understanding of Mute, the medium in Krauss’s formulation is not confined to a work’s physical substrate but can also take an epistemic form, including rules, logics, and paradigms. Hence, in Mute’s case, as we will see, the medium might include publishing platforms but also, for example, editorial paradigms and logics of user participation. Moreover, for Krauss, the aesthetic work tends not toward a progressively more refined adequacy to its medium but toward an open and recursive emergence through successive loops of interaction between the work and its medium. There is no direct correspondence, hence, between work and medium but more a baggy fit, allowing for an uncertain determination between the two and a degree of latitude in the way a work responds to its material forms, even as it succeeds only insofar as it constitutes the necessity of their resultant relation.
As the broadsheet clearly exemplifies, Mute embodies a strong self-differing orientation, but it diverges from the kinds of work that Krauss analyses in ways that suggest this concept may apply here only in general terms. For Mute is not a single work, or a series of works by a single artist, but a polymorphous and discontinuous aggregate, emerging over a twenty-year time span across the many different dimensions and features of content and form that have come into relation; its analysis calls for concepts that can handle that discontinuity and variation. Second, while the concept of the self-differing medium is useful in foregrounding the aesthetic and medial dimensions of Mute’s experimental form, Mute is of course a publishing project rather than an artwork. As such, its textual content—as with Negri’s characterization, the leading feature of this political magazine—has greater significance in its own right and more autonomy with regard to its media form.
To develop an approach that addresses these points and offers a more adequate theorization of Mute’s content–form relation, I turn to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “assemblage” and, later, to that of “diagram.” For Deleuze and Guattari, textual content and material form—or “discursive multiplicities” and “non-discursive multiplicities”—exist in relative autonomy. Between content and form “there is neither a correspondence nor a cause–effect relation nor a signified–signifier relation”; instead, they are drawn together in assemblages where they interact in relations of “reciprocal presupposition,” an assemblage being at once product and cause of this interaction. Much of the time, such assemblages reproduce standard patterns, where the product of the reciprocal presupposition of content and material form is unremarkable and the fact of this relation is largely unnoticed. We can think of a commercial lifestyle magazine as such an assemblage. It tends to reproduce standard patterns of format, editorial, page layout, modes of address, journalism, manufacture, and so on, as textual and visual content and magazine form interact in unremarkable fashion, and where cultures of consumption have little feeling for how much all this interpolates particular kinds of subjectivity. But in more experimental magazines like Mute (and only some of the time and in particular instances, for the standard patterns endure here also), the interaction between content and form intensifies, the two interfere with each other, causing mutual transformation and, hence, transformation in their aggregate, the magazine assemblage.
A particular assemblage’s mix of content and form will be highly various. As we will see in Mute, sometimes the relationship between content and form is explicit and clearly expressed in a particular work; other times, the relation is less directly identified with a particular work but rather is a quality of the magazine as a whole, or a quality of a delimited sequence in its publication. Likewise, sometimes the interplay between content and form is expressed in ways where text takes a dominant role (the kind of works N. Katherine Hayles calls “technotext,” “where a literary work interrogates the inscription technology that produces it”); other times, more in accord with Krauss’s concept, text may have little presence, and instead paradigmatic, organizational, or medium-specific features of the magazine may articulate its agendas. It may even be the case that brute physical materials come to express the magazine’s critical agendas, what Guattari calls the “mute redundancies” that too often suffer “overcoding” by linguistic text. Of this, the salmon pink broadsheet is a clear instance—a “‘mute,’ visual, encoded” articulation of the magazine’s critical concerns, as van Mourik Broekman describes it. Whichever manifestation it takes, the concept of assemblage teaches that while content and form are in relations of reciprocal presupposition, there is always a “gap” between them, irreducible as they are to each other, such that an assemblage functions “out of balance” and always open to its outside. As I will show shortly, it is in this gap that the “nonplace” of the diagram operates, at once “swallowed up” in particular assemblages and operating as their agential pilot.
Minifesto and Diagram
We can now return to plotting Mute’s publishing form. Leaving the broadsheet behind in 1997, between issue numbers 9 and 24, Mute took a more recognizable magazine format (saddle-stitched, then perfect bound) before adopting a lavish coffee-table format with issues 25–29 (2002–4). The design experiments, aesthetic qualities, and publishing practicalities of this period of the magazine are addressed in considerable depth in Mute’s graphic design anthology, so I will largely pass over discussion of these. Instead, from here on, this chapter focuses on the subsequent period from 2005, when Mute fully embarked on its “hybrid publishing model.” At this point the magazine comes to take on what I call a diagrammatic form. I mostly focus here on the period between 2005 and 2011, known as “Volume 2,” which I take to be the height of Mute’s hybrid and diagrammatic publishing, before the immanent financial limits I discuss toward the end of the chapter necessitated a climb down to a more Web-based model.
The immediately apparent feature of Mute’s development at this stage is the changed role and status of its online publishing, as the Metamute website (first instituted in 1995) shifted from being an adjunct to the printed magazine to taking a central place. Yet this is not that well-rehearsed story of a simple move from print to online but a reconfiguration at a more infrastructural level, a change in the magazine’s publishing form and paradigm. It was a change introduced in a highly original manner through two visual diagrams, published in the magazine itself, which graphically modeled the dynamics and directions of its transformation. I will spend some time working through the second of these diagrams before turning from its abstract modeling and the diagrammatic form that it reveals to consider the concrete features of the magazine’s form with which the diagram is in interplay, as map, provocation, and product.
I have mentioned the self-critical orientation held in the title of the first of these diagrams; the same is true for its sequel, which is our focus here: “The Magazine That Mistook Its Reader for a Hat!” It riffs on neurologist Oliver Sacks’s account of a patient who was so unable to recognize the world around him that he mistook his wife for a hat, so metaphorically signaling the perceived rift between the magazine and its outside and the radical “perceptual change involved in moving from a traditional magazine . . . to a hybrid publishing model.” The rather unusual character of this document warrants some explanation before I attend to the specific publishing form that it plots. Mute playfully describes the two diagrams as “minifestos,” encouraging us to approach them at a tangent to the textual form of the manifesto. Like the manifesto, these diagrams mark explicit points of radical departure, diagnosing and projecting a future that in turn—and this is the peculiar mode of authority of the manifesto form—reacts back upon the present of the magazine to force and channel transformation. However, as I argued in chapter 1, the performative structure of the manifesto is heavily invested in the exterior presentation of a strong and coherent group subjectivity, the successful projection of its vision in large part necessitating that it conjure away the cracks, discords, and instabilities of political existence. Mute’s diminutive designator minifesto signals a movement away from such self-inflation. The minifestos work rather differently, turning their gaze internally to the normally “invisible processes” of self-critique and development and projecting these to the outside. That is to say, they serve a function of critical self-analysis, what van Mourik Broekman calls a reflexive “autopoetic criticality,” which is now brought to the “surface,” no longer hidden behind a puffed-up subjectivity but laid out for readers on the magazine page.
If this document is a minifesto, it takes the form of a visual diagram, a schematic ordering of graphic and textual material—lines, pictograms, words, arranged in space. Gilles Châtelet’s Figuring Space offers much insight here, and in terms that are especially pertinent for considering Mute’s media form, for he sees diagrams as modes of scientific inscription particularly germane to experimental and inventive projects that break with identity—that proceed through “blind spots,” “problematics,” “fogs”—as the complexity of life is “take[n] up again in the flesh.” It is an argument that can be best approached through the contrast Châtelet draws between diagrams and metaphors. He writes, “Diagrams are in a degree the accomplices of poetic metaphor. But they are a little less impertinent—it is always possible to seek solace in the mundane plotting of their thick lines—and more faithful: they can prolong themselves into an operation which keeps them from becoming worn out.” Both metaphors and diagrams work to describe and evoke relations—they “leap out” to figure space—but metaphors risk becoming “worn out” clichés, with passifying effect, as they dissolve the “cold” technical specificity of a particular operation with the “warm confusion” of relations of resemblance. Diagrams, on the other hand, with their modest plotting and sketching—as they struggle in uncertainty to grasp elusive abstract relations and make connections across disparate realms—are extended or prolonged in contact with the world (or the “flesh”) that they map. Not that metaphor is entirely dismissed (helpfully for me, since I began this chapter that way and will have recourse to other metaphors yet). While metaphors tend toward cliché, we can think the relation the other way around and see them also as proto-diagrams, or nursemaids to diagrams, understood as the process of shifting from clichéd representations to an awakened critical intervention: “metaphor begins the process of shedding its skin that will metamorphose into operation, and hence it is that this nook swarms with clichés that strive to invite us to view a rediscovered operativity.” Yes, diagrams inevitably arrest movement too, abstracting a figure from the complexity of sociomaterial relations, but they do so in a manner that remains open to—indeed, “solicits”—the indeterminate potential of matter to take other form, its “virtuality.” Diagrams, then, both illustrate and engender; that is their specific function:
[If the diagram] immobilizes a gesture in order to set down an operation, it does so by sketching a gesture that then cuts out another. The dotted line refers neither to the point and its discrete destination, nor to the line and its continuous trace, but to the pressure of the virtuality . . . that worries the already available image in order to create space for a new dimension: the diagram’s mode of existence is such that its genesis is comprised in its being.
Having assessed “The Magazine That Mistook Its Reader for a Hat!” as minifesto and visual diagram, it is time to turn to its specific content. What does this diagram engender, as it puts “metaphors aside” and “turn[s] felt into flesh,” in Mute’s rather Châteletian formulation of the task? The specific problematic the minifesto addressed, as with its precursor, was the opening of Mute’s previously closed editorial structure to user participation, as Mute came to recognize the radical changes under way in the publishing environment and made a move toward user-generated content. But it does so by posing the problem as one of the media form of the magazine as a whole, as Mute transformed into a diagrammatic entity. We can follow the transformations through the minifesto itself (Figure 11).
Figure 11. “The Magazine That Mistook Its Reader for a Hat!” Artwork concept by Mute based on an earlier concept by Quim Gil, art direction by Simon Worthington, Mute 1, no. 25 (2002). Courtesy of Skyscraper Digital Publishing.
Starting with the image titled “B. The Mute Project Cluster,” it is apparent that the new publishing model was less a shift from print to digital than a move from identification with a single platform to a hybrid “cluster,” an open set of many platforms and practices, where a hybrid is “anything derived from heterogeneous sources, or composed of elements of different or incongruous kinds.” These clustered platforms are represented here pictographically, but in concrete terms, as it stood at the height of Mute’s diagrammatic form, the magazine comprised the following: the Metamute website; a quarterly print-on-demand (POD) booklet; the OpenMute consultancy and training in open source tools, design, and e-publishing (with associated speculative initiatives in independent and peer-to-peer publishing tools and distribution: More Is More and Progressive Publishing System); Mute Books; solo and collaborative workshops, talks, and events (a notable instance was the November 2008 Forever Blowing Bubbles walking tour through London’s financial City with Peter Linebaugh and Fabian Tompsett); occasional pamphlets; and Mute LISTSERVs (including Mute-social, a public notices list, and, if we include the nonpublic aspects of the magazine, Mute-edit and Mutemag-production, closed lists where the intellectual and practical dimensions of editorial are hammered out).
Where exactly is Mute in this hybrid cluster? We see in section (B) that the platforms circle the perimeter of a vortex, suggesting that Mute is at once to be found in each of its clustered platforms, as I have suggested, and—“more than the sum of its parts,” as the accompanying text has it—in the vortex itself, a metaphor for a particular kind of process. Mute, in other words, takes both concrete and abstract form. If we develop this with Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology, Mute’s media form comprises at once a series of concrete publishing assemblages (the clustered platforms, interlacing content and form in particular situations) and an “abstract machine” or “diagram” (pictographically represented as a vortex). This addition of “diagram” to our already elaborated account of the assemblage is significant, for it allows us to grasp what gives consistency to the cluster of publishing platforms. A diagram “pilots,” or governs and potentializes, a set of assemblages, where the latter are particular and various expressions of the former’s “abstract formula,” its general orientation. As an abstract entity, a “nonplace,” a diagram does not stand over the assemblages but is immanent to them. And it has no form and content of its own—it is “almost blind and mute,” manifest only through the assemblages, and in turn becoming transformed by their particular and various handling of its abstract formula. So, although I suggested earlier that a magazine can be understood as an assemblage, in Mute’s case, that was true only until it was displaced from identification with one publishing platform onto a cluster of platforms, at which point it was no longer only an assemblage, or even a set of assemblages, but became also a diagram, where the diagram both governs its assemblages and is in a relation of mutual presupposition with them. These are the bare bones of diagrammatic publishing, of which Mute from this point on is a singular exemplar, but we need yet to understand the way that it produces magazine immanence and to tease out the concrete specificities of this diagrammatic form.
To these ends, the minifesto continues to be instructive, where the vortex has additional valence as a modeling of immanence. It is a metaphor still, but one that is considerably more operational, in Châtelet’s sense, than Negri’s “octopus” and Deleuze and Guattari’s “single page.” If we follow the movements, the vortex (B) conveys a strong processual quality to Mute that avoids the twin problems of a closed and bounded entity and an undetermined flux. It suggests instead an immersive or immanent entity whose inside is an involution of its outside, a process operative through a permeable boundary. The vortex, indeed, is constituted on this boundary. What does that mean? It is to say, first of all, that the magazine is defined by its ever-changing boundaries, the encounters of outside and inside—the magazine is these encounters. Yes, a vortex is a site of concentration, intensely so, but unlike Negri’s image of the octopus, it is concentration without a center, or with a very different kind of center. It is something of a paradoxical space, both inside and outside simultaneously—“an inside copresent with the outside,” as Deleuze describes it—where the inside and outside are continually exchanged, twisted, and doubled together. Or to speak with Châtelet, this is an immanent “horizon” (“one always carries one’s horizon away with one”) that, insofar as it is driven by the outside, is experienced as a certain involuntarism of the intensive encounter: “corrosive like the visible, tenacious like a smell, compromising like touch, [the horizon] does not dress things up with appearances, but impregnates everything that we are resolved to grasp.”
How does this immanent, vortexlike process actually occur? The focus of the minifestos is on the process of generating textual and visual content, for the editorial team framed the hybrid publishing model as a reprioritization of content, a return to what was “‘always already’ Mute’s main interest.” This could sound like a move away from the experiments with magazine form that I have been pursuing, but it is actually through such refocusing on content that Mute began its most experimental engagement with media form. For it was characterized by a redoubled attention to the diversity and effects of the medial means by which content is produced, circulated, and consumed. Returning to follow the movements in the minifesto, the border of the vortex is constituted, then, through the parameters of “attraction” and “invitation” that, in centripetal fashion, draw content out from the environment and into a point of concentration, Mute itself. As we have seen, this point of concentration is experienced only in and through the magazine’s clustered publishing platforms, so the magazine’s border, its immanent horizon, is multiple, layered, and discontinuous. And at each of these borders, magazine content is solicited, handled, and problematized in terms that are conditioned by the particular technical and epistemic qualities of that platform. These platform qualities are not politically inert, of course, but are interlaced with sets of political problematics of their own (as we will see).
With this picture, we have a much richer sense of the sociomaterial “flesh” of the magazine, and we have too a diagrammatic explanation of Mute’s reflexive practice of self-critique. For insofar as the magazine’s vortex-movement folds and unfolds its environment, the critique that it develops of that environment is necessarily also turned against itself as a product of that environment. This dimension of self-critique is crucial to the immanent, diagrammatic form of the magazine, because without it, Mute’s center would lose its paradoxical copresence with its outside, its vortex would slow down and settle into an identity separated from that which its content surveys.
There is a further quality of magazine immanence to the movement described in the minifesto, whereby the attraction of content works alongside a decentering redistribution of the magazine’s participants, in regard to content provision and publishing infrastructure, what it terms “participation.” This is critically described by text (C) (as I will discuss shortly) and partially assayed on the right of the diagram, where the distinct media platforms are represented according to a calibrated scale of openness to user participation—for example, limited involvement in the commissioning of Mute Books, but a goal of participation in the editing and administration of Metamute—and this changing according to the progression of time.
Moving around the remainder of the minifesto, the bottom left quadrant (A) sets out the magazine’s principal research interests and critical orientations. In our now near-complete plotting of Mute’s diagrammatic form, we can take these to be itemized expressions of the magazine’s abstract formula, what I outlined earlier as its immersive and self-critical fascination with technosocial “flesh,” which is at one and the same time its insistence on the nonidentitarian critique of capital. This abstract formula—which at the “blind and mute” level of the diagram is not yet differentiated into media form and textual content—passes through each and every point of the magazine’s platforms or assemblages as something like Mute’s dynamic equilibrium. And last, to the right of quadrant (A) is a selection of other vortexlike organizations with which the magazine is in intellectual and practical exchange, both extending its reach and further displacing its center through relations of collaboration.
The minifesto is, then, a visual diagram of Mute’s diagrammatic publishing, a particular and operational instance of magazine immanence. The point now and for the remainder of the chapter is to consider how this diagrammatic form is manifest in concrete specificity. My account is not intended to be totalizing—that would run counter to the unfinished virtuality of the diagram as visual model and sociomaterial process—but rather is a sampling of key dimensions and features. Each feature I discuss is a concrete articulation of Mute’s diagrammatic publishing as it is manifest in specific aspects of the magazine and in relation to particular political problematics, problematics that are associated with these specific aspects and are, in this, also those of Mute’s self-differing “flesh” more broadly conceived. The first two sections, on Mute’s website and its POD quarterly, focus primarily on particular platforms. After that, the discussion considers dimensions of the magazine’s diagrammatic form that pertain to the magazine as a whole, some of which are explored in relation to specific technological mechanisms, such as the affordances of distributed media or the “tag” capacity, whereas others are discussed in more abstract terms, such as its mode of editorial voice. Let me stress that all of the platforms and publishing problematics that I discuss here have their own particular qualities and effects, which push and pull in various discontinuous directions such that the diagrammatic aggregate is more a broken bricolage than a mushy whole.
Inoperative Public: Metamute, OpenMute, User Participation
Of the different media platforms that compose Mute’s publishing cluster (as listed previously), I will focus primarily on Metamute, OpenMute, and, in the subsequent section, the POD quarterly. Running on the open source content management system Drupal, Metamute moved from an adjunct to the printed magazine to become the “editorial engine” of Mute content as a whole, working in concert with the other platforms of its publishing cluster. As one might expect, given the distributive capacities of digital and online media, Metamute has been a significant vehicle for Mute’s vortexlike opening to a more “participatory” publishing model—through the comment function, news sections, blog imports, and the submission of more substantial user contributions, including artworks. Participation, here, is presented in the text of the minifestos as a “non-vampiric” set of relationships “where a network of readers, contributors and editors starts to co-determine the publishing process.” It could sound like a new media cliché, except that this assertion sits amid an array of reflexive assessments (in the minifestos and elsewhere) of the complex pattern of participation that can emerge and follows a keen sense that participation is a fraught and contradictory process rather than a self-evident good that requires merely a technical fix.
In certain instances, most notably around J. J. Charlesworth’s critical exposé of the neoliberal arts agendas and governance structures of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Metamute has succeeded in weaving distributed user-generated content—from various sites and political positions, in assorted textual modes, and at different institutional scales—with top-down editorial commissioning and research-based writing. And yet this participation has been at best fitful, especially when contrasted to the high volume of Metamute’s traffic (averaging 12,500 unique visitors per month in 2013–14). The significant feature of Mute’s intervention in the terrain of participation is located elsewhere—first, in the magazine’s reflexive and critical relationship to the discourses of participation and the public and, second, in its practical orientation toward the technologies and paradigms of small-scale publishing, both of which I consider here.
There has been a strong tendency in contemporary discourses of media decentralization and participation to treat them solely as issues of technology and to sideline the socioeconomic relations within which digital and networked media are embedded, what Mute, in the accompanying document to the second minifesto, calls the “mode of . . . social inscription.” When attention is paid to the social inscription of participatory media, one sees how its apparently democratic features can actually serve to mask and entrench inequalities of access and power, for user participation and its discourses of empowerment are in fact central to the emerging business paradigms and valued subjective dispositions of commercial media. Mute was an early critic of what is now a commonly recognized condition: that participation and decentralization function in Web 2.0 social media as a source of accumulation and control, as public production is incited, channeled, formatted, data mined, and monetized for private gain. Mute was thus clear in its minifestos, at the same moment that it opened to a more participatory paradigm, that “decentralisation for its own sake—or, worse, for the sake of product expansion—is one of the most suspect phenomena to have emerged in online culture.” Mute resisted such tendencies by displacing the problem of participation from an exclusive concern with expanding the field of user-generated content onto a broad critical assessment of relations between the magazine and its readership, and in a manner that sought to transform both terms.
The resolute criticality of Mute’s engagement with fledgling and now full-blown digital media scenes has meant that it has tended to repel, as much as attract, its potential readership, so warding off the identitarian closure attendant on efforts to construct and mirror a delineated audience or market niche. Van Mourik Broekman reflects, “At the point this seemed a distinct possibility (around 1998/99) we were loathe to turn Mute into a kind of sector journal servicing the needs of a nascent art-and-technology/digital-art/new-media community.” There is a similar problematization of the broader figure of the “public.” Mute’s default understanding of the capitalist structure of social relations is of course contrary to the notion of a generic public that preexists its construction in any one (more or less exploitative and exclusionary) social configuration—nation, citizen, “local community,” and so on. The destructive deployment of the trope of the public in speculative urban development has, for example, been a long-standing interest of the magazine, of which Laura Oldfield Ford’s pithy formulation of its art modality is indicative: “public art, as we think of the term since the ’80s, seems to be about making colonial totems that say, ‘it’s ok, we’ve tamed the natives, it’s safe to come in.’”
We can say, then, with Jean-Luc Nancy, that there is an “inoperative” quality to Mute’s understanding of its public, readership, or community, where community, in Nancy’s terms, is constituted in self-critical exposure to its limits, its outside, to what it is not: the “socially exposed particularity” that undoes the “socially imploded generality” of community in its identitarian mode. To this Mute adds in something of community’s affective fault line. Mute’s inoperative community is not that attraction to the same, which drives the “like” function of Facebook and is coded into Google’s search algorithms, but a “connection-engine with ‘strangers,’” as van Mourik Broekman describes it. It is “not just about recognizing and being semi-narcissistically drawn to an image of oneself, one’s own subjectivity and proclivities,” but is an experience of “‘alien’ ideas that are nonetheless compelling, troubling, or intriguing” and that attract people into the “reader- and potentially even contributor-circle,” a “connection-engine [that] draws people in, propels people out, in a continual, dynamic process, which, due to its intensity, very effectively blurs the lines of professionalism, friendship, editorial, social, political praxis.”
To be clear, this inoperative orientation is as much a critique of the notion of a counter-public. On this front, Mute has engaged significantly with radical trends in “open” organizations, at once embracing horizontal and collaborative modes of organization while challenging their tendencies to nurture informal hierarchies and cloak the “predicating inequities of the wider environment in which [an organization] is situated,” as J. J. King argues, much as Jo Freeman’s essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” did for the libertarian politics of the 1970s, though now with special attention to the digital media environment, open source communities, enterprise culture, and the affective and linguistic qualities of political association.
However, all this critique of participation, public, and counterpublic by no means absolves the magazine of the need to address the practicalities of association, for it has made intriguing moves toward a model of the public adequate to its diagrammatic form. OpenMute is especially interesting in this regard, a “network resources project” that was established to provide Web tools, training, and publishing resources to cultural and community groups at low or no cost. A project that began with Mute’s efforts to share its own experience of automating its Web publishing activity, OpenMute displays again the magazine’s centrifugal practice of “pushing outward” its internal organizational dynamics and capacities into the wider social arena, now to the extent of them becoming public resource. Crucially, the public domain is posed here not as a distinct social body but rather as a question of infrastructure, of “public knowledge architectures.” So framed, Mute’s formulation of public participation is an attempt to breach the divide between the often utopian political claims for digital publishing and the less impressive reality of its use, given the common skills gap and financial constraint that prevent marginalized groups from full utilization of open source and other Web and e-publishing tools.
These aspects of OpenMute coalesced into a distinct “Technology” stream of the magazine and its consultancy work, where a core focus has been the development of open source and e-publishing tools and initiatives to aid small publishers and independent arts organizations. The driving problematic is apparent in Worthington’s assertion that the “interesting questions” about the future of the book concern not the tired cliché of whether books are an endangered species but “the composition of the publishing market—irrespective of whether that is for digital or print,” where fantasies of democratic user participation disguise the consolidation of media monopolies and small publishers face prohibitive barriers to financially viable production and distribution in e-publishing environments. To meet this problem, Worthington’s Mute-developed Progressive Publishing System, for instance, was an experimental software engine for the easy conversion of published materials across POD, short-run press, e-book, mobile, and tablet platforms, aiming to circumvent the prohibitive barriers to production and distribution that are so debilitating for small publishers. It is a project that has since fed into his research on open source publishing infrastructures at the Hybrid Publishing Lab at Lüneburg’s Leuphana University.
The Aesthetics of Print on Demand
I want at this stage to bring in the print product of Mute’s diagrammatic form and therein open to more discussion of the place of art and design, concentrating on the POD quarterly booklet that ran to seventeen issues between 2005 and 2010. Known as Volume 2 to mark the extent of the departure from previous formats, the POD booklet arose as a solution to two problems that burdened Mute at the time of its move toward hybrid publishing. First, POD helped overcome a persistent Web–print dichotomy in Mute’s publishing practice, offering a platform that is something of a hybrid of print and digital technologies, a clear instance of post-digital publishing. Flexible and cheap, POD is a publishing platform somewhat in the mode of the post-Fordist mainstay of just-in-time production. It combines high-speed photostatic print with perfect-bound full-color covers in book editions of any size, from one copy upward: a point of considerable contrast to Mute’s broadsheet format, where the minimum print run had been ten thousand. POD allowed Mute to spread the costs of printing, so drawing expenditure and revenue into greater sync, and to distribute production to global locations closer to points of purchase so as to reduce shipping costs. It also held the promise of a large degree of automation in the publishing process, with design and content management tools enabling easy to-and-fro movement between Web and print platforms (a platform convergence capacity that OpenMute has tested through its speculative initiatives, such as Progressive Publishing System, as aforementioned, and the Web2POD tool, for collating and outputting personalized article collections). These are all significant developments in the economic struggles of small publishers.
The second problem addressed by the POD quarterly concerned a growing imbalance in the relative emphasis the magazine placed on its media form as against its content—the coming apart of this precarious interrelation. The product of POD technology in Volume 2 is a rather stripped-down printed object; it has a “simplicity” and “sobriety” that could not be more different from the “pinnacle of print luxuriousness” that was the immediate print predecessor of Mute 25–29. It is true, the magazine at that time was a beautiful print artifact, with, among other features, its experiment in high-absorbency art paper (which required drying out for days after printing, indicative of Mute’s difficulties at this time) and the free rein the format gave to Mute’s taste for cartographic visual technique, experiment with page design, and the interplay of image and text. It is the smell of the magazine’s paper stock that marks the rarity of Mute in that period, considerably more evocative of the alchemy of ink and paper than any commercial book. But the magazine’s immersion in design is probably best illustrated by the cover of Mute 29, where the feature themes of oil, war, and finance are synthesized in spectral images produced by pouring molasses on a scanner bed, which was then backed with silver foil to drive an intense reflection through the molasses and so produce an eerie, oil-like quality.
These numbers of Mute were “high-end design’s last stand,” as the editors later reflected. By contrast, the POD quarterly could be seen as a marked failure, given, as I have been arguing, that a “heightened sense” of experiment with magazine format and design has been a fundamental characteristic of Mute since its inception. Yet high-end magazine aesthetics can tip the subtle relation between form and content out of balance, as a “format-fetishism,” in Mute’s assessment of the problem, comes to task the medium alone with the magazine’s political agendas. By the time of Mute 29, certain format and design preferences had indeed gained an agential autonomy that risked distorting the magazine as a whole, burdening its precarious form with the unsustainable labor- and design-intensive values of the coffee-table format. POD enabled a rebalancing, but unlike its use in commercial publishing, where it is merely an economy, a poor imitation of offset lithography, in Mute, the properties of POD were taken up in its self-differing orientation toward design.
To some extent, the design focus of Volume 2 shifts from the visual form of the magazine page to the design of Web, e-pub, and software facilities—the latter, in Progressive Publishing System, for instance, has a clear aesthetic dimension—but that is not the only story. However much Mute by issue 29 had come to be an extraordinarily beautiful print artifact, as the POD quarterly pushed at the limits of Web–print hybridity, it handled a more diagrammatic aesthetic than its print predecessor, more immersed in the sociomaterial flesh of publishing. The quarterly’s strange and seductive combination of book format and magazine page structure contains echoes of the Xerox styling of 1970s self-publishing, with its stark photostatic ink, simple line drawings and vector graphics, and pared-back urban and landscape photography, most effectively seen in the full-bleed, double-page spreads that can give a rather haunting aspect to the booklet, notably in Pam Worthington’s image (in the first POD issue) of Morecambe Bay, site of the death of nineteen Chinese cockle pickers in 2004. But this is less a retro repetition of past visual forms than an aesthetic product of the sociotechnical relations of post-digital publishing, as the benefits of decentralization, automation, and low cost that came with the photocopier are found again in the unique capacities of a new print medium.
With the POD quarterly, Mute continued the practice of commissioning new artwork for each issue. The “Living in a Bubble: Credit, Debt and Crisis” issue (which, with impeccable timing, was published in September 2007, just as the banks’ liquidity troubles tipped into full-blown economic crisis) included a number of artworks on the issue theme solicited from an open call to readers, so posing the problem and possibility of nontextual modes of representation of that which is so difficult to cognitively map. But perhaps the most successfully realized of the commissioned works in Volume 2 is David Osbaldeston’s “Out of Time” in number 13, for it takes advantage, in the manner of an artists’ book, of the structure of the POD booklet. Here press photographs of “iconic” world events—the 1992 LA riots, the Iraq 1991 “Highway of Death,” among others—are combined with text cutouts and dates in degraded, rephotographed images. The effect is to problematize the tendency of such images to take on a life of their own, as they now circulate in the booklets in a reified and desolate state.
There is something also rather singular to the POD cover design (Plate 12). Prior to the adoption of this format, Mute had often toyed with the design conventions of lifestyle publishing, especially in its period as a saddle-stitched magazine. The experimental fashion photography of Richard Dawson’s “Shelf Life” series is a case in point, a remarkable set of variously humorous and unsettling images and scenarios that both convey and trouble the stylistic repertoires that might be encountered in an “edgy” commercial fashion magazine, the uncanny effect of these images accentuated by their somewhat incongruous presence in a magazine with anticapitalist orientations. Another example is Mute’s teasing approach to the convention of ensuring consumer attraction by adorning the magazine cover with a face, here with the decidedly non-individual faces of a Borg, Furby, or clip-art businessman. The glossy magazine also made use of the advertising facility of the insert (which provides publishers with additional page space at a fraction of the cost of bound pages) to publish not adverts but artworks, or artworks on the back of adverts—Mute’s Metamap (insert to Mute 21) is a case in point, a vast cartography of global communications surveillance modeled on Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Map. But in leaving the glossy magazine format behind, and so no longer dependent on consumer seduction via the newsstand shelf (where want of a more appropriate marketing category had Mute placed somewhat incongruously in “men’s lifestyle”), the POD quarterly freed up Mute’s experimental attitude, allowing for “increasingly baroque” and stylistically eclectic covers that encompassed, among other things, ad-busting, artists’ commissions, and neo-Dada collages.
These brief comments on the design and art content of Volume 2 touch a point of (not unproductive) tension in Mute’s publishing practice. The magazine’s movement over time toward a more concerted intervention in the broad sociopolitical terrain of neoliberal culture has been perceived by some, including its longtime part-funder Arts Council England (ACE), as a disquieting departure from its core remit, while other more recent readers from activist circles sometimes challenged the magazine for failing to maintain an overtly political focus. The problem with these criticisms is that they miss the distinctive nature of Mute as a hybrid site of conjunction, where perceptual and intellectual repertoires and orientations derived from art and politics brush up against each other in an open and critical space that resists collapsing the two together. It is notable, in this regard, that Mute’s particular conjunction of art and politics is quite different from what we might call the “activist aesthetic” that emerged with the alter-globalization movements of the 1990s. Though certainly making good use of agitprop traditions—witness the Mute-commissioned flyposters from “We Are Bad” that opposed the class-cleansing urban effects of the London 2012 Olympics—the magazine maintains a commitment to the capacities of art to have transformative effects particular to its own forms and structures of composition, with regard to sensory affect, aesthetic autonomy, open composition, and so on. Howard Slater’s Mute essay on Ghédalia Tazartès is a striking illustration, with its evocative encounter with the timbres, local affects, temporal thickness, and “lessness” of a musician who invites the listener into a dislocation of the unified self with “personified emotions made dissemblingly sonorous.” One might even go so far as to suggest that it is in these kinds of works that Mute locates the true politics of aesthetics, given the instrumentalization of “engaged art” that the magazine has so carefully tracked.
If the low-intensity participation of user comments proved to be relatively inconsequential to Mute, the magazine’s commissioning practices have enabled its immanent relation with its environment to proceed with considerably more success. Mute has gathered a number of regular contributors more or less closely associated with the editorial group, but the vast majority of its content is commissioned from new or occasional writers. The commissioning structure has two main aspects. First, it is dependent on an immersion in distributed communication networks. Web-based mailing lists have been central, as Berry Slater explains: “for a long time Nettime supplied a large proportion of our writers. So we’re on the list, we might be participating, we might be lurking, but we’re logging, you know, voices and research agendas and so on.” Second, such everyday tracking of communication networks is complemented by the effect of atypical events (for instance, the 2008 financial crisis or the 2010–11 U.K. movements against student fees and austerity) that throw up fresh and various sets of writers as they allow the magazine to encounter a new “density of social relations”: “then there are also these wonderful, kind of, events that come down and you don’t see happening, and that really alter things again.”
This commissioning structure brings into view a dimension of Mute’s diagrammatic form that is not so clearly rendered in the minifestos. If the writing in Mute-as-vortex is, in this way, a product of distributed networks and events, then it is less an entity located in one place—the impression that one could gain from the minifesto’s representation of the single vortex—than a process that occurs across social space. It is this that lends Mute the quality of being ever-decentered that is key to Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphor of immanent publishing, the “single page.” I noted that this page was a “broken” field of composition; we can now see a practical way in which that is so. Insofar as the magazine comprises such distributed commissioning, it is a decentered and fragmented entity that emerges concurrently at each of the sites where contributor, writing, and publishing platform come into encounter.
Mute’s distributed commissioning impacts also on the mode of authorship of the magazine’s writers. Mute takes some pride in assembling content from an eclectic mix of artists, cultural workers, data programmers, activists, academics, research students, musicians, independent researchers, novelists, and others, in various combinations, who are not confined to a particular sector or school, nor chosen by an abstract specialism in writing, but are selected by the adequacy of their relation to the problem or event at issue. There is a certain impersonalism at play, then, where the site and source of expression are shifted from the self-expressive subject to an individual’s particular and temporary condition amid mutable social relations. This tendency toward distributed authorship is not to say that Mute is a fully inclusive global forum. In its content, the magazine has made significant interventions in critique of the racialized, gendered, and classed patterning of violence and exploitation in global regimes of production, consumption, and control, but the makeup of its contributing writers has continued to be predominantly first world. Nonetheless, in Mute’s awareness of the barriers to participation (where, as numerous articles have investigated, racialization, gender, and class are interlaced with constraints that are territorial, legal, linguistic, technological, and financial), one can again observe the magazine’s self-critical sensibility, its refusal to accrue satisfactions of identity from its current media form.
The significance of this kind of distributed commissioning was noted as early as 1921 by the Hungarian communist Adalbert Fogarasi, whose argument helps bring into view its political dimensions. For Fogarasi, the communist press needed not only to distribute communist content but to challenge the capitalist press in its form also. Similarly to Mute, the promise of such intervention in publishing form was an immanent relation to social events, a relation that could undo the bar between reader and writer:
Getting the readers to work with the press is a crucial means in this regard. The reports written by workers on events in the plants which are published in Ordine Nuovo (“The New Order,” the Italian communist paper edited by Antonio Gramsci) represent a successful effort at transcending the untenable distance between communist reader and writer, or at least occasionally reversing the roles.
This has obvious benefits for workers’ education, political empowerment, and the emergence of collective enunciation, but Fogarasi understood its role also as a move toward overcoming the specialist role of the journalist, an alienated personification of abstract labor, in this respect just like any other form of capitalist work:
It is not the [journalists] who have produced the capitalist press, but the other way round. . . . Just as capitalist production transforms the workers into simple accoutrements of the products of their labor, into mere things, so the press transforms the journalists. . . . The journalist is a specialist with unique qualifications. These do not consist in special knowledge in a specific, substantive realm of human intelligence and ability, but in the ability to write about anything. Under the journalist’s pen theories, facts, opinions, counter-opinions, and news are transformed into an undifferentiated mass of printed matter. . . . The laws of reification insure that the journalist himself, as a simple personification of journalism, follows the laws, carries out his functions mechanically and unconsciously. Under his pen every intelligible structure is remade into a commodity.
A century on, we now know that the commercial paradigms and narcissistic compulsions of social media trouble any neat notion that the breakdown of the division between reader and writer has an inherently progressive orientation. But that by no means invalidates Fogarasi’s impulse toward critique of the commodity form of the specialist writer and her textual product or the importance of contemporary intervention on this front. In Mute’s case, distributed commissioning is an effort toward remodeling the form of the magazine writer through critical appropriation of the decentralizing capacities of online media, not a surrender of the magazine to the dominant commercial structures of the latter.
Free Indirect Editorial
There is an impersonalism also in Mute’s diagrammatic approach to editorial. The point of Mute’s distributed commissioning is not, as in the Web 2.0 model of user-generated content, to abdicate editorial control but to interlace distributed commissioning with editorial intervention, an approach that the minifestos call “hybrid editorial.” To come to an appreciation of the nature and novelty of this form, it is instructive to contrast it to Lenin’s canonical formulation of political editorial in What Is to Be Done? Here Lenin accords the party newspaper a singular political significance, as the preeminent means of generating and training party organization and inculcating political consciousness and will. As such, “‘paper’ work” is political work, of which the key function is to convey the party’s “design, dimensions and character” and to inculcate a “complete and all-embracing line.” Here editorial voice has a structural resemblance to the centralized, integrated, and hierarchically ordered form of the Leninist party, with its Taylorist structure of governance, the split between management and execution whereby consciousness is introduced to the workers from the party center. There are no doubt also structural resemblances and some common cause between centralized editorial and the formal features and industrial paradigms of the print newspaper more generally, such that (recalling my discussion of Debray in chapter 1) class structure, organizational form, and editorial voice were held together in a mutually sustaining “media ecology.” As I have remarked already, the time of this media ecology is over; regardless of one’s views of the Leninist publishing model, the demise of the workers’ movement, class fragmentation, and the prosumer capacities of distributed media and user-generated content are such that it would be a delusion to think that the Leninist media form could be potentialized today.
This is not to say, however, that there is no place for strong editorial voice. We must ask, then, what might a diagrammatic editorial paradigm look like, one that no longer seeks to be the external projection of a centralized party line but has, instead, a distributed and emergent quality? Mute’s experience helps tease out an answer. Van Mourik Broekman comments that changes in the editorial board, development of editors’ interests, and their more and less subtle differences of political position are such that both “across time” and “in time,” there is “no unitary, collective ‘voice’” to the magazine. And yet there are clearly regularities or consistencies to Mute’s positions, something of a critical orientation or voice of sorts, and the magazine certainly makes no claim to be a transparent channel for the voices of the social world: “any notion of unmediated editorial contact with a sort of virgin non-local ‘voice’ must continue to be regarded as another (colonialist?) phantasm. . . . (The figure of the lone ‘Third World’ or ‘conflict zone’ blogger that is a firm favourite of the UK press comes to mind here.)”
Neither unitary nor unmediated, then, Mute’s editorial voice is instead a product of the magazine’s weave of voices over time and space. It is constituted not only of the similar and different interests, relations, and biographies of the editorial group—as fashioned in their editorial LISTSERVs and biannual meetings—but also of the contributors that the magazine channels, the events with which it becomes associated, and the projections and associations that readers bring to the magazine, for the editorial voice exists as much in the imaginations of its readers as it does in the magazine’s pages. It is, in other words, a voice of the magazine itself, which, drawing from Maurice Blanchot’s reflections on the collective and volitional capacities of magazine form, has an “intermediary status.” This is not simply an amalgam of parts; the point I wish to make is that as the magazine’s editorial voice emerges across its constituent parties, it has a quasi-autonomous existence. Indications of this condition can be detected in Berry Slater’s reflections on the theme, where she introduces the intriguing notion that editorial voice can operate against the will of the editorial board: “We have a really complicated relationship to that voice. It sometimes happens against our will, sometimes it’s consciously driven, and sometimes it’s held up in an accusatory manner—‘How can Mute think or do such a thing?’—as if Mute were some kind of unified entity, an editorial brain.” Displaced from any one subject position, the editorial voice takes on a life of its own, with a character close to Deleuze’s notion of “free indirect discourse,” a discourse dislodged from any one speaking subject that hence carries a desubjectified, somewhat uncanny quality. To adapt Deleuze’s words to our context, the model we have here is of the magazine’s editorial voice as “monster,” it “has a life of its own: an image that is always stitched together, patched up, continually growing along the way.”
I will avoid preempting the fuller discussion of free indirect discourse that I undertake in chapter 6, but what is important about this concept here is that free indirect discourse has a volitional or catalytic capacity. A product of the multiple voices that compose it, free indirect discourse, in its quasi-autonomous condition, reacts back upon them to become a cause, as it draws out or induces associations, affects, ideas, and critical orientations from its milieu. This catalytic quality can be clarified with reference to a concept with closer proximity to our topic. In the “institutional psychotherapy” practiced by Jean Oury and Guattari at the psychiatric clinic La Borde, a central role was taken by the collective production and publication of journals, not merely as a matter of linguistic expression but as a means of assembling diverse components—semiotic, affective, practical, technological—in an entity that was at once product and catalyst of institutional practice, self-critique, and therapy, where, in Gary Genosko’s words, “the institution is in part a product of a journal’s collective elaboration and refinement over time.” This model breaks with the therapeutic dyad of analyst and analysand by enabling the journal itself to function as a mediating “third object” or “transversal tool,” as Genosko describes it. Writing and being read, editing, printing and the enchantment of the print product, allocating and reordering tasks, distribution, and so forth, all become immanent to the testing and refashioning of individual and collective subjectivity. No doubt Mute’s editorial board would have things to say about the place of this magazine in their psychosocial and institutional relations, but my point is that something of the volitional effects of the “third object” will feature in the broader milieu of readers, writers, and participants who find themselves taken up in intensive relations with Mute’s voice, however fleeting or occasional these may be.
Judged by Lenin’s criteria of socialist editorial, that it inculcates and projects an “all-embracing political line,” such an unfettered or monstrous editorial will appear wanting. But for a magazine constituted of a vortexlike weave of contributors and events in opposition to a delineated subject or political line, this quasi-autonomous editorial voice is an indication of the vitality of the magazine, as an overdetermined, precarious, and yet agential collective enunciation. The role of the editorial group and its other contributors is to nurture the quasi-autonomous voice, to contribute to the quality of its critical interventions and aggregations, but also to be dazzled by it, to be taken unawares and swept up in its movement. No doubt, free indirect editorial will sometimes go awry, lose its critical edge or its aggregating and volitional powers, but as it operates at and on the limits of collective identity, this is the necessary wager of monstrosity, its lurching and fitful quality an indication of open, diagrammatic form.
Magazine Time and the Archive
I have thus far approached Mute’s diagrammatic publishing in predominantly spatial terms, but the magazine also has a significant temporal dimension. Periodicity is of course an intrinsic feature of the modern political newspaper and magazine, orchestrating the time of writing, the labor of production, and the patterns of consumption, just as these in turn impart a temporal pacing to the generation and circulation of political ideas. It is in reference to this temporal structure that Mute, with all its anomalous qualities, could most convincingly ground its claim to be a “magazine,” albeit that the regularity of the print product has been somewhat elastic: initially a quarterly, a one-year period of the saddle-stitched magazine reached a six-issue target, while in its coffee-table format, it slowed to a biannual. This elasticity has a certain appeal as an aspect of Mute’s self-differing sensibility, but there is no great challenge here to the formal structure of publishing periodicity, which subsumes the complexities and conflicts of social experience in “the steady onward clocking of homogenous, empty time,” as Benedict Anderson writes of the daily newspaper. There is, however, a more profound and critical temporal dimension to Mute, as can be developed from the way that time is inflected in the magazine’s different platforms.
Mute’s diagrammatic cluster holds together both “fast” and “slow” publishing platforms. Metamute allows for turnaround from commissioning to publication in sometimes as little as two weeks, producing a “stream of content,” in Worthington’s description, as compared to up to six months with the coffee-table format, where articles were “banked” for simultaneous release, and the POD quarterly, where a selection of online articles were collected around an editorial theme. The benefits Web publishing provides of fast responsiveness to events are obvious, but in this mix of fast and slow, speed is not given absolute priority. Though Mute’s distributed commissioning has shown a tenacious ability to stay at the leading edge of cultural and political events, the magazine’s singularity lies elsewhere, as can be discerned from this comment by Berry Slater:
We don’t have the resources to be the first at the scene of the crime—we don’t have that kind of facility. What we can do is to come at something with an analysis that tries to shape the thing harder, or drive further under the surface of appearances of what is happening. And maybe that’s the sort of thing that we do slightly pride ourselves on, and the ability also to be long range. I think the pieces that we’ve published by people like Anthony Davies on the neoliberalisation of culture in cultural institutions, for example, are almost future-casting.
This formulation of critically “shaping” the world can be productively approached through the theme of time, where it is possible to discern a temporal sensibility of a Bergsonian kind, picking up on a point I made in a different context in chapter 4. Unlike simple forms of life that react to perception with immediate action, in complex nervous systems, a pause or “rift”—a “zone of indetermination”—is inserted between perception and reaction as perception forces a recall of memory, of past perceptions, which combine with the current perception to modulate action. Thought and action hence no longer react automatically to stimulation, so reproducing the past, but combine with these past perceptions so as to act differently, to open up new dimensions in the future. It is not an overly metaphorical reading of this formulation to suggest that a political magazine operates in much the same way. The magazine is a forum, a zone of indetermination, where perception of the world is channeled through political memory—memory of the contributing author, of the reader, of the magazine’s archive—in writing that critically shapes that perception and wrenches it from the narrow frameworks and automatic responses of the immediate present. In this way, the magazine’s politicizing content (as with Negri’s account of Futur Antérieur, Mute’s driving force) carries and imparts a polytemporality, and one with an orientation toward the new. It is a temporality that operates in the midst of, and in opposition to, the flattened temporal structure of contemporary capitalism, with its obsession with immediacy and the “now”—a structure that, for all its apparent modernity, actually impedes the truly new, for it isolates the present from the resources necessary to open it to anything other than a repetition of the same, a “tautological manoeuvre whereby what is already present is endlessly represented because it is already present,” as Berry Slater describes it.
Yet memory is not in itself enough to enable critical intervention in temporal form, for it can have a decidedly conservative function, swamping the current perception with the past. Bergson continues: “With the immediate and present data of our senses, we mingle a thousand details out of our past experience. In most cases these memories supplant our actual perceptions, of which we then retain only a few hints, thus using them merely as ‘signs’ that recall to us former images.” This possibility is apparent in van Mourik Broekman’s remark about the risk of an “elephantine memory problem,” where the editorial voice, political orientations, or aesthetic styles of Mute can be constrained by the magazine’s “sediment of history.” If Mute is to stay vital, then, the archive must itself be treated as an arena of the magazine’s self-critique and structural remodeling, a practice that is exemplified by the difference between Mute’s two anthologies. These books register the publishing transformation of Volume 2. One book, Mute Magazine Graphic Design, assembles the magazine’s image, page, and graphic design, along with an extensive history of Mute’s publishing models, while the other, Proud to Be Flesh, compiles eighty-one articles from the magazine’s history (a stock of six thousand plus), each stripped of images and overt design features. At close to six hundred pages, Proud to Be Flesh is a hulk of a book, with an austerity that its sumptuous covers and glossy inserts only confirm by their stark contrast with all those words. And yet it is this anthology that is the truly inventive of the two. Mute Magazine Graphic Design has the air of a swan song to Mute as a lavish print work, whereas Proud to Be Flesh is fully part of Mute’s diagrammatic form, where it serves as something of an agential object in its own right. As van Mourik Broekman and Worthington stress in the foreword, the book is not a conventional anthology, a “Best of Mute,” but a critical working on the archive. It “treats the entire back catalogue of Mute as its critical arena,” putting accumulated text back into motion, drawing out the editorial themes that have “crystallized” from the magazine’s multiple voices, and projecting possible routes of future inquiry. With this crystallizing aim, it is fitting that Proud to Be Flesh takes the form of a dense and compact book, a media object tangential to Mute’s flatter, more magazine-like platforms, in relation to which the book works as a condensing and refracting agent.
Proud to Be Flesh was compiled by Mute’s editorial group; a second initiative toward revitalizing Mute’s archive placed more emphasis on the participation of the user. A significant feature of the Metamute rationale has been maximization of the data storage and retrieval capacities of the Web so that it can transform the archive sedimented in linear fashion—the strata, if you will, of magazine issues—into a more horizontal or immanent plane, a disaggregated data set ever leaning into the present. Using three hundred plus “tags,” users can assemble multiple pathways through Metamute on topics ranging from sound art to oil and border activism. The promise of this and related metadata functions is that Metamute can act not only as a medium of the “now,” as is the shrill rhetoric accompanying the field of publishing under the shadow of social media, but as a membrane that multiplies the critical resources of the past in the present toward an expanded future.
Document, Fragment, Fallout
It would be a great mistake to think that Mute’s diagrammatic form coheres in an integrated and smooth-running publishing entity, to allow the modeling of the minifestos—or, indeed, the mapping undertaken in this chapter—to produce retroactive effects of unity on what is in fact a highly contingent and unstable entity. As a product of numerous and different contents and forms with competing agential valences, Mute’s continuity and relative coherence are only just achieved, and only then in a fashion characterized as much by false starts and loose ends as by publishing achievements—and so we encounter a second instance of the “broken” quality of Mute’s magazine immanence. This makes logical sense; if an entity is constituted on the many horizons of its outside, immersed in the “flesh” of the social field, it is necessarily subject to disruptions and changes in that field. What is enticing about the diagram and assemblage as concepts and forms in this context is that they bring such contingent and broken composition into the foreground as a principal dynamic, where, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, they “work only when they break down, and by continually breaking down.”
The six major transformations of Mute’s publishing model illustrate this, with each remodeling more or less the result of a particular problem, event, or contingent encounter rather than some unfurling of a publishing teleology. The point is casually made in the comment that it “was only a small and seemingly incidental experiment” with POD technology that brought it into view as a “possible solution” to the problem of a Web–print dichotomy. And this dimension of diagrammatic publishing is not only expressed in such points of major transformation; it also inheres in Mute’s everyday functioning, where the magazine’s vortexlike opening out of its internal structures is accompanied by a deliberate attention to, and foregrounding of, its fringes, failures, and long tail.
This is most apparent in Mute’s approach to documentation, where documents serve to hold the groping and fragmentary developments of the magazine’s publishing models on its public surface. This is of course true of the minifestos, which emerged as an attempt to publicly document Mute’s efforts at transforming its publishing paradigm (a move that was prompted, appropriately, not by the editorial board but by a reader of the magazine). If these are self-problematizing documents, as I have argued, they are also accounts of blockage and breakdown. Van Mourik Broekman notes that “The Magazine which Mistook Its Reader for a Hat, is the story of what happened when this promise [of the first minifesto, “Ceci n’est pas un magazine”] meets the harsh realities of the material world, where resources, time and human behaviour cause things to slow down, or not work.” And yet these documents of breakdown and transformation have also passed a threshold to become achieved aesthetic works, central instances of the magazine’s published form. Hence we need examples that are closer to the unfinished, working quality of documentation. One of these is an early set of speculative consultancy documents by Saul Albert on the possible development of a Metamute “Collaborative Review Library.” These allowed interested parties to observe, online, Mute probing the publishing potential of such sociotechnical entities as trackbacks, social bookmarking, cross-publication strategies, wikis, barter schemes, micropayment structures, and so on, in a project that was itself concerned in part with documenting Mute’s transition to open source. More recently, Mute’s interventions in the field of publishing technology find documentary articulation in an “R&D” section of the Metamute web pages, open for perusal, beta phase testing, and participation by readers of the magazine.
Such foregrounding of the magazine’s fringes and margins has even taken the form of a work of commissioned art. The collaborative sound project “Fallout” (1999–2001) that Mute undertook with the artist Kate Rich had as its very object the excluded fragments of publishing practice: the “fertile material” of the “office conversations, ambient sounds and ‘surplus’ interview material that get excised in the production of a print magazine.” Released online over the work’s duration and then included as an audio CD with Mute 21, three tracks are especially noteworthy: sound clips of an interview with the systems artist Steven Willats, an interview previously published as “King of Code” in Mute 17. In this part of “Fallout,” the listener does not so much encounter an audio version of the interview as a breakdown in conversation, an interview going wrong, and in a way that not only foregrounds the margins of the otherwise neatly fashioned and contained printed interview but also reveals something of its suppressed content. For the breakdown arises in large measure from dispute between interviewers and interviewee about the liberal assumptions inherent to systems theory and its model of consensus, that from which the artist makes his work. What is experienced, then, is a piece of fallout reacting back on the published interview to bring a new entity into view, an entity that in its breakdown performs the conflictual and overdetermined nature of all systems, including the system of the magazine interview itself.
Choreography of Commerce
It may come as a surprise that Mute’s editorial group has been explicit in describing the magazine as a “business,” since the cultivation of anti-business organizational forms has been a long-standing sine qua non for political publishing projects. The latter orientation is not without problems, in recognition of and response to which the case has occasionally been made for the adoption of business practices in radical publishing, most influentially by the Comedia group in the 1980s. Comedia’s argument in essence was that if alternative media were to achieve longevity and escape the activist ghetto, they needed to transform their organizational structures along capitalist lines, with a professionalization of management, marketing, and accountancy and the development of an entrepreneurial attitude. The critique was intended to be comradely and claimed not to favor the “blind extension of management ideas into organizations with social goals,” but the weight of the argument could not help but push just that, as each encounter with experimental publishing was assessed by conventional criteria of publishing success, against which, of course, it came up short. And yet Comedia’s preparedness to critically assess the financial paradigms of radical publishing is significant. It is a direction taken by Mute also, though on a different tack to Comedia. It is true, as van Mourik Broekman and Worthington wryly note, that from a certain angle, Mute’s story could indeed appear to resemble the “clichéd image” of the creative “do-it-yourself entrepreneurial venture” lionized in the neoliberal imaginary. However, Mute’s standing as a business is located in relation to a somewhat different set of concerns to those propounded by Comedia, containing none of the latter’s implicit sense of the organizational superiority of business forms.
The politics of Mute’s commercial structure is best considered through the magazine’s critique of the much-touted radical publishing principle of “independence” or “autonomy.” If independence is defined as economic self-sufficiency in a negative relation to state and corporate bodies, Mute as longtime recipient of an ACE grant (£68,912 in 2011–12, the year before funding was axed) is not an independent entity. Yet it is questionable whether “independence” on this axis is really so progressive. The reach of capitalist forms of value is such that very little stands outside its powers of mobilization and capture; the linguistic structures and perceptual habits by which we experience text, let alone modern publishing technologies and communication infrastructures, are all thoroughly permeated by capital. To proudly declare media independence under such conditions is to be at best naive and, at worst, to disguise (however unintentionally) the real structures of capital and power. The point is clear in van Mourik Broekman’s rhetorical question: “if the price of a Western European country’s culture is disguised by social welfare, mature technological infrastructures and a history of imperialism, does this elevate its ‘independence’ over global production cultures that appear more compromised?”
In this light, Mute’s self-designation as a “business” is an ironic display of its thorough implication in capitalist social relations, a condition of its immanent “flesh” that requires not declarations of independence, which would merely obfuscate social relations with progressive sounding rhetoric, but an ever compromised “choreography of situation”: “the only viable methodology is to be alert and totally engaged in the contradictions of our position/ing, never presuming an organisational innocence.” There are also more practical considerations. Central to Mute’s experimental publishing has been a concern at each stage of its transformation to find a financial model that allows the magazine to endure and staff and writers to be paid. Mute here shares with Comedia an interest in prioritizing financial viability and avoiding the self-exploitation of “free labor” that plagues independent media initiatives. But there is an important, if subtle, difference. The Comedia model is predicated on an uncritical notion that business structures and commercial media practices are neutral sets of tools that, if well handled, can be repurposed for leftist content. It is an approach that jettisons the politics of media form in favor of an accommodation to commercial norms on the wager that this can result in relative success—understood as commercial viability and audience reach—for radical media. Experience suggests that it is actually far from clear that commercial success in these terms is so readily achievable by small press media. Regardless, Mute’s self-critical financial form is somewhat different, characterized not by accommodation with commerce but by a struggle against it.
A detour through Deleuze’s analysis of the place of money in cinema is helpful in elucidating the nature of Mute’s intervention on this front. In a brief and enigmatic comment, Deleuze places capital at the heart of cinema, arguing that cinema is an “industrial art” not, as one might assume, because of its technological form but owing to its “internalized relation with money,” “an international conspiracy which conditions [cinema] from within.” For cinema is subject to money’s “harsh law” that “a minute of image . . . costs a day of collective work.” To this law there can be no independence, no escape, only one rejoinder, as Deleuze quotes Fellini: “When there is no more money left, the film will be finished.” But if cinema cannot escape money, neither does it accommodate itself. For any cinema worthy of the name, the internal relation with money is a relation of struggle: money is cinema’s “most intimate and most indispensable enemy.”
Now, the struggle that characterizes Mute’s production is not dissimilar. The magazine’s efforts toward a financially sustainable publishing model are not premised on achieving a point of happy accommodation with money; how could they be, when the structural antagonism of capital is such a persistent theme of Mute’s content? The effort, rather, is to wrench sustainability from the fundamentally hostile structure of commerce, a task with an ever-receding horizon of success. Accommodation would of course make things easier (as it does in the bulk of banal industrial art), but that would be to abdicate the magazine’s critical aims, because a condition for commercial success is to make any number of changes to form and content (as set out by Comedia, for example). Mute is left, then, in a relation of intimate and irresolvable struggle, one that is manifest in the paradoxical and contradictory combination of efforts to pursue commercial sustainability—subscriptions, advertising, micropayment structures, devolved sales, grant moneys, consultancy, crowdfunding—with the decidedly noncommercial practices of refusing to build a stable profile or court a market niche, the adoption of free-content and anticopyright mechanisms, and direct critique of the governance agendas of funding bodies. As a “business,” Mute is a strange commercial and anticommercial hybrid; in the struggle against money, it could not be otherwise. It is a paradoxical condition, born in the relationship to money, that traverses the magazine as a whole, as is apparent in van Mourik Broekman’s reflection on the transformations in Mute’s publishing paradigms:
We told ourselves the changes we made in the magazine were smart adaptations, determined by market conditions like distribution, that could allow us to sell more copies and increase our chances of being successful enough to stay around. But I now wonder whether these changes in the form weren’t a very elaborate way of avoiding—or perhaps safeguarding—the central project of working out a certain critical framework, without the interference of the market, institutional requirements, etc.
My account of Mute’s diagrammatic publishing has been largely kept to the period between 2005 and 2011, but the theme of the magazine’s business form warrants extending the analysis to after that date. The moving tangle of contradictions that is Mute’s business model hit a brick wall in spring 2011, when the magazine’s ACE grant was axed, a fate Mute shared with a disproportionately large slice of the digital arts sector. This has combined with the severe difficulty of sustaining itself in the free-content economy of the Internet—where, in a familiar story, readership has increased and diversified in inverse proportion to sales and subscriptions—to leave Mute in a more than usually precarious situation. Nonetheless, the ACE cut was met by Mute, in typically combative fashion, with a new publishing paradigm, its sixth. Alongside a restructured Metamute that more effectively foregrounds the diversity of Mute’s publishing cluster and routes to sales, the print product of the magazine, dubbed “Volume 3,” is something of a hybrid of the high production values of the coffee-table format and the automated editorial facilities of the POD quarterly. Volume 3 comes packaged with a new strap line, “We Gladly Feast on Those Who Would Subdue Us,” which is rendered also in Latin, should the swagger of Mute’s response to austerity be in any doubt. But my concern at this stage of the chapter is with the way Mute responded to the ACE cut with a practical critique of the business paradigms of such cultural funding bodies and the insidious effects of these on experimental arts and publishing.
In two pithy responses, both published in the first issue of Volume 3, van Mourik Broekman and Berry Slater drew on ten years of Mute research into the governance agendas of arts funding to dissect the conservative reflux of ACE’s decision. These texts detected an emerging tendency to redefine digital media merely as resource for extending the reach and organizational development of conventional art practice rather than as a “highly self-reflexive area of work with a long and rich history linking into video, performance, independent publishing, installation art, software development, literature and more.” And this occurred precisely at the moment when critical intervention in the digital media field is most needed, as the Web becomes increasingly locked down and instrumentalized through capitalization and corporate consolidation. It is, however, the critical reflection in these texts on the insidious neoliberal effects of ACE’s governance agendas that is most compelling for our analysis of media form. Mute approaches these agendas as vehicles for the backdoor introduction of corporate practices into the critical arts sector, undermining it from within, at the level of organizational form. And so the designators of success—“risk taking,” “excellence,” “innovation,” and the ubiquitous “creativity”—are to be found only in bodies that adapt their organizational structure to corporate norms. The claim, in what Berry Slater aptly describes as a Darwinism of the arts, is that the cream will rise; the reality is that ACE agendas and organizational requirements strangle criticality and experiment in favor of crowd-pleasing forms, distinctive brands, and solid business plans: “It is the bad faith of conflating capitalism’s transformation of the cultural field with the criteria of so-called ‘cultural excellence.’” In textbook neoliberalism, these organizational structures also introduce self-interest and competition for scarce resources, along with mechanisms of self-subjection, a “slavish gratitude” for funds that induces complicity with ACE values and agendas even among those bodies who are denied funding. It is why Mute responded to its funding cut with such a strong public critique and the establishment of a critical and organizational forum, “ACE Digital Uncut,” within which a diverse range of digital arts groups opened a new collective front on the financial politics of digital media.
Taking leave here of Mute’s ongoing publishing transformations, I will conclude with a sketch of the principal features of Mute’s diagrammatic form. Returning to the model of magazine publishing that I drew from Negri, Mute, like Futur Antérieur, is driven by its politicizing content, its critique of neoliberal capitalism across the latter’s myriad empirical manifestations. And, still in accord with Negri, Mute is radically open to its environment, to the social field within which it exists and to which it seeks to contribute political insight and association. There is a resolute materialism to Mute’s understanding of this social field, a materialism that foregrounds the technomaterial character of human life and sociality—the “flesh” of the world. Indeed, it is a materialism that sweeps up even the medium by which the critique is made, for Mute’s very form as a magazine is subject to political critique and experimentation, a reflexive and anti-identitarian process diagrammed in its publishing minifestos. In all this, Mute makes the same move toward magazine “immanence” that was articulated in the metaphors of “octopus” and “single page” employed by Negri, Deleuze, and Guattari, but it moves our understanding of the political magazine considerably beyond these, at the level of its organizational modeling and its practical construction.
Here politics is not located only in the magazine’s politicizing content, the empirically routed critique of neoliberal capital, but also in its media form, where content and form, in relations of “assemblage,” constitute mutually sustaining and transforming relays. Mute is a hybrid cluster of parts and processes, some of which are technological (open source software, POD), others aesthetic (the design affordances of the magazine’s print platforms), content generating (distributed commissioning, user-generated content), temporal (the archive as critical intensification of the present), communal (OpenMute’s public knowledge architectures, its monstrous editorial), and financial (the paradoxical business form of this forum of anticommerce). In each of these parts and processes, there is no determined relation between content and form. Rather, these two modalities of media production come together in zones of experimentation—which may be an apt description of Mute as a whole, except such a description risks sounding somewhat loose and metaphorical, whereas my aim here has been to map abstract and concrete dimensions of the magazine’s publishing practice in their specificity, in the components that compose this experimental publishing venture. The assemblages, paradigms, and problematics of which the magazine is formed are many and various, but they all operate in a vortexlike manner of critical immanence to the sociomaterial flesh of the world, to the social relations of neoliberal capitalism. Mute, one might say, is the faltering pilot of the magazine’s assemblages—their “diagram.” Together, all these components and characteristics constitute a model and practice of diagrammatic publishing.
Mute’s diagrammatic form is precarious, for while the parts of its publishing cluster contribute to the magazine as a whole, they also pull in various directions with competing capacities and effects. The risk is that the magazine will “go entropic,” as the editorial group have evocatively put it, losing coherence and collapsing into its environment. But this precarious character is also a sign and source of Mute’s vitality, for it is self-critical experimentation at the horizons of each aspect of its publishing cluster, in its contingencies and breakdowns, that drives change in the magazine’s form.
If Mute indicates a possible future for the political magazine, it is not that future mapped by the pundits of technological teleology but one comprising such contingencies and media hybridities, where the assessment and development of media form—in post-digital fashionings of “old” and “new”—is always interlaced with an appreciation of, and challenge to, its social inscription. Mute suggests a publishing practice that is driven in part by an experimental attitude that comes from a deep commitment to the properties and potential of diverse mediums—a little “format-fetishism” is no bad thing. In the end, however, what is most singular about this art, technology, and politics magazine is that its media form becomes a more vital site of aesthetic and political experimentation the closer it attends to the production and circulation of its content. Unlike many self-declared “independent” publishing projects, Mute’s financial arrangements are just as much internal to its self-critical mutations as any other dimension of its diagrammatic form. That is just as well, for these arrangements, and the culture and economy they carry, may prove to present the greatest threat of entropy. When there is no money left, the magazine will be finished.
Or not. In May 2014, as I complete this chapter, Mute has responded to its funding cuts with another major transformation in its media form: “Volume 4,” Web and e-pub publishing as-lean-as-you-can-get.