Of course journalists will try to exploit us, that’s what the blood sucking freaks do. [With apologies to the admirable 2% of journalists who do a good job]. The way I see it they can try all they like, as long as we stay meaningless they’re stuck with nothing to report. All the other stuff overseas just serves to confuse the issue. Maybe we should all be militant communists for a day…. Possibility is ours to create. Reality is the impediment of the unimaginative. It’s them stuck in the network of needing to organise, label, categorize, ANALyse. We have the secret of pronoia [sic] and we will always lead this dance.
A defining feature of the new global economy is the tendency for abstractions of value (capital) to rush intensely and in torrential volume to places and situations of opportunity, while a dominant metaphor for contemporary forms of organisation—social, informational, communicational, capital, cultural and political—is the flow. It is the trope that seems to prove most adequate to a reality characterised by abrupt shifts, changes, and transformations. Foucault may have been strikingly apposite, if only in a banal, popular sense, when he said that the 21st century would be Deleuzean. Contemporary movements appear characterised not by the unitary transition of corporeal objects through space and time, but by intensities, scales, flows and concentrations. I raise Foucault’s comment about Deleuze right at the beginning of this paper, because it is Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of “de-territorialisation” and “assemblages” which are especially useful in thinking through the formations and dissolutions of objects in modern life and thought, and especially the speed at which they travel.
It is the peculiar manifestation of the rush and the flow in modern culture known as the flashmob that I would like to explore here. Flashmobbing is a polyvalent cultural practice. In part, I want to examine how this practice mirrors other modern social and cultural assemblages (rush shopping, demonstrations, rave organisation, acts of collectivity and protest, public games and mass satire), and whether, instead of offering a flickering space for resistance, such performance ends up repeating the hegemony of the cultural order. I would also like to consider whether it is a re-articulation, in a modern technologised ‘real’, of older figurations of play, rebellion and dissent, such as surrealism or the Situationist International (or indeed, on a longer plane, the pre-modern carnival of continental Europe). In navigating through these considerations, I will touch on how flashmobbing relates to and makes use of public space, as well as its relation to technology and communities.
Essentially, I would like to get at three basic questions. Is flashmobbing wholly new (and what does it mobilise from the past to achieve its aims)? Does it present any challenges to consumer capitalism (and if so, are they sustainable and viable)? And what is its future?
Some definitions and prefatory comments
What is flashmobbing, and how is a flashmob constituted? Wordspy online defines flashmobbing as: “(FLASH mawb) n. A large group of people who gather in a usually predetermined location, perform some brief action, and then quickly disperse.” According to Wordspy, the phrase has two antecedents—the smart mob concept of leaderless organisation coined by the technology journalist and populariser Howard Rheingold, as well as Larry Niven’s flash crowd notion that supplied the terminology for massive influxes of net traffic (usually in response to an advertisement, announcement or sale—on Amazon.com, for example).
Flashmobs are organised through loosely affiliated, non-hierarchical networks of people using modern communication technologies, such as mobile phones, the Web and email. They are orchestrated to bring as many bodies as possible together at a pre-arranged time and place to enact a publicly disruptive and spectacular act of ludicrousness (in the Latinate sense of something playful, a game). Some examples of flashmobs and their targets include:
A Burger King restaurant in Auckland where 200 people converged to moo like cows for over a minute before dispersing. The sudden influx of ‘customers’ caused the restaurant to ramp up burger production as staff began to prepare dozens more meat patties and buns. This excess production had to be discarded when the crowd disappeared. (1 September 2003)
The steps of Flinders Street station in Melbourne, where more than 70 people amassed to don yellow dishwashing gloves and point at the sky. (21 August 2003)
Toys R Us at Times Square, New York, where up to 500 people crowded into the Jurassic Park exhibit to worship at the base of the giant animatronic T-Rex dinosaur situated there. (8 August 2003)
In these examples, as well as in those that Wordspy cites, there is a distinct and recurrent theme of the comic disruption of commercial and economic space. But this theme—most clearly played out in the New Zealand example, where the advent of a hundred-strong crowd in a fast food restaurant occasions the ramping up of production to meet sudden peaks in demand—are oddly downplayed by those associated with the Sydney flashmob (and others). The Sydney mob claims to be founded solely “for the organizing of pointless random acts of spontaneity,” and claims never to “organize political, social or national protesting.” This despite one of the first Sydney flashmobs being organised around the ‘sale’ of a billboard, with members of the mob yelling bids and engaging in a mock ‘auction’ of a pre-existing hoarding—drawing attention to the commoditisation of public space.
Mobilising technology for the sake of a nebulous and vaguely anti-social ‘fun,’ especially fun that does not require a deep commitment of time or engagement, plays directly into the de-politicised, media-saturated moment of the present. It is directly analogous with wireless gaming and the location-based combat games described by Rheingold,  and has parallels with advertising and PR that disingenuously plays with ‘political incorrectness,’ dissipating the political force of other, more ‘genuine’ texts, such as manifestoes, statements of political commitment and sincere declarations of resistance. The question of flashmobbing’s success or failure as a strategy of resistance to the cultural order (and all that entails) will be taken up again below, but it is worthwhile for the moment to foreground these political tensions here, as they point to the fraught possibilities for resistance in the information age. Flashmobbing is not without its critics, either. As one person commented online: “Flash mobs combine the pointlessness of chain letters with the adolescent inanity of ‘Everybody cough at exactly 2.08.’”
To return to the theme of fun and play briefly, it is salutary to note that much of the support that the practice has received stems directly from its libidinal jouissance, its sense of anarchy and irreverence. The SydMob site argues in this way:
FlashMobbing could also be defined as a great incentive to let off some pressure and steam from our mostly mundane adult lives. We are governed by so many rules in our social and working circles. Have you ever been walking down a busy city street and noticed the blank look on peoples faces? How about on public transport? That look of total indifference is unmistakable; it’s the face of person feeling more like a worker bee then a human being. Have you ever felt like doing something out of the ordinary to see their reaction?
The very act of a flashmob could brighten their lives; not to mention your own. If the thought of being involved with a group of absolute strangers suddenly breaking out into an extremely silly act on a public street or a public place in front of hundreds of people sounds appealing, then SYDMOB is the place to begin.
SYDMOB is aiming to be the focal point of the Sydney ‘chapter’ for local acts of FlashMobbing. This site hopes to inspire people to come together, even for just a short time, and celebrate our rights as citizens to organize random acts of spontaneous stupidity for the amusement of ourselves and others. Spread the word and get involved!
Against the numb, shocked response to the multiplication of difference (and especially sensate difference), flashmobbing attempts to reverse the weakening of spontaneity, and refuse the fall into regular and patterned behaviour.
Far from being an ahistorical emergence owing nothing to the past and everything to a felicitous arrangement of technology and culture, flashmobbing has both theoretical and formal roots. Theoretically—however much flashmobbers would deny it, and in the absence of an articulated theory of the practice as such—the mob recalls the vibrant anti-capitalist ideas of the situationists, albeit shorn of their overt politics.
The Situationist International was established in 1957, and published twelve issues of a journal, Internationale Situationiste until 1969. Owing much to Marxism as well as “avant-garde artistic agitation,” the situationists
characterized modern capitalist society as an organisation of spectacles: a frozen moment of history in which it is impossible to experience real life or actively participate in the construction of the lived world. They argued that the alienation fundamental to class society and capitalist production has permeated all areas of social life, knowledge and culture, with the consequence that people are removed and alienated not only from the goods that they produce and consume, but also from their own experiences, emotions, creativity and desires. People are the spectators of their own lives, and even the most personal gestures are experienced at one remove.
Against the proscribed, delineated channels for moving through urban space, situationism advocated forms of pedestrian travel and experience of the city such as the dérive or psychogeography—seemingly aimless wandering that constructs passages through and meanings about urban space that defy the rigid logic of urban planners or the suasive demands of advertisers. In his “Théorie de la Dérive,” Guy Debord (one of the founders of the Situationist International) declares the dérive’s difference from the classical journey or stroll—it is “playful-constructive” behaviour. Parallels to flashmobbing are amply evident.
COBRA, one of the organisations that prefigured and fed into the Situationist International, were vehemently critical of the poverty of everyday life, particularly the emptiness of everyday public life. Writing in the first issue of COBRA’s journal, Michel Colle lamented: “the state of total and passive submission [experienced by] the man in the street placed before the architectural phenomenon. These movements, as well as the traditions of the avant-garde in modern art (surrealism and performance art particularly) provide the theoretical unconscious to the practice of flashmobbing. Just as the situationists argued passionately in their manifestoes for the revolution of everyday life, sentiments like those expressed by Robert Shaw also express the desire to create spaces outside of the hegemonic cultural order. Being on the vanguard is important, as Shaw says in the quote which opens this paper: “we have the secret of pronoia [sic] and we will always lead this dance.”
Scouting at the front of cultural developments also resists the codification of older, accepted and assimilated cultural forms—the banal middle-class quotidian pleasures (yesterday’s avant-garde forming today’s cultural order). Banality resides in saleability and predictability—if something is comprehensible, then it is reproducible and can have a monetary value attached. In this, flashmobbing, despite decrying its political effects, dovetails into Adornoist conceptions of the reproducibility of works of art. If art is difficult, grates on the sensibilities, defies classification, refuses interpretation, and is not readily assimilable to the symbolic order, then it evades capture by capitalism. It cannot be bought or sold, and it cannot be co-opted.
In addition to theoretical foundations in movements like the Situationist International and surrealism, flashmobbing has recent formal (stylistic) antecedents in such public and co-ordinated anti-social behaviour as San Francisco’s drunken santas and anti-vehicle rallies such as Critical Mass, and a longer history in performance art.
Public space and utility
Public space is often conceived of in utilitarian terms. After all, to commission a structure is rarely to have it constructed for its own sake, although there are obvious exceptions to this. Buildings and streets are built for people to use (at least, such are often the pragmatist claims of their architects and builders), usually in the sense of purposive transit to and from somewhere, or in the hosting of dramas of commerce and consumption. Against the logic of pragmatic and utilitarian use-value operating in public space, flashmobbing appears to pose, like the situationist dérive or performance art, an attempt at staging something useless and meaningless that cannot be recuperated back into consciousness or co-opted by quotidian daily life. It consciously ‘means’ nothing in the context of urban space.
A mob is meant to be a non-event that defies ratiocination by its opacity. Asked by curious onlookers after the dispersal of a mob “what just happened here,” participants are encouraged to say “nothing,” or “I’m not sure.” Slavoj iek, through Lacan, might say that flashmobbing is meant to capture a fundamental rupture in the symbolic order—the sense of structure and pattern that we map onto daily life and the spaces through which we move—where it refuses to cohere with our own fragmented and discontinuous experiences of those spaces.
But does flashmobbing actually disrupt commerce? There are no accounts of flashmobs that seriously impede daily trade (other than by sheer force of numbers), even if they distort it by misrecognition (as surges in customers that require more production or a larger sales force).
The most powerful element to flashmobbing, perhaps, and in striking opposition to other grassroots social organisations, is its ephemerality. The climax of a flashmobbing event is the dispersal of its participants. In footage of Australia’s very first flashmob at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne on the 21st of August 2003, the most interesting moment is not the various pans across the assembled mob pointing to the sky with pink and yellow washing up gloves, but when the gloves are peeled off and the mob atomises back to its pedestrian and commuter constituency. Unlike other movements which meet to produce—in the form of agreed solutions to problems, plans of action, strategies of resistance, protesting bodies, physicalised dissent—flashmobbing meets to consume. It meets to consume attention, and (again in the Latinate sense of destroying—consumare) to kill spare time; to kill off boredom, to do something stupid. For younger people (often locked out of power relations by virtue of their lesser place in the social order and their relatively diminished buying power) it is a way to temporarily own space (at a premium in a speculative real estate market like Sydney), and so flashmobbing is consumptive, too, of public space. It consumes the attention of pedestrian traffic, of the media, and of the public. Because it consumes without purpose, it flags patterns of consumption circulating in the wider community, and draws attention to their mindless mob inanity by virtue of being ‘pointless’ and ‘random.’ Flashmobs particularly emulate the rushes of shopping and capital that take place around retail-sanctioned annual periods of mass-consumption such as Christmas time, Valentine’s Day or the Boxing Day sales (at least in the West).
Public space, particularly public shopping space is a privileged theatre of commerce and consumption in the modern West. It is here that a substantial portion of contemporary life is acted out, through purchasing behaviour and postmodern flaneurie. In America, shopping is second only to television as the favoured leisure pursuit. In his study of mall culture in the US—called the “Magic of the Mall”—John Goss establishes the centrality of the mall to modern American culture and, by extension, the future of global culture. Having posited the mall as the centre of gravity for modern urban life, Goss asks, “how can we reclaim the mall for the people?” One of the strategies he suggests is the “tactical occupation of spaces,” and another the “subversion of systems of signification.” While it would be naïve to suggest that the staging of a flashmob in central Sydney or other major metropoles has anything more than the most transitory of deleterious effects on shop custom and the public’s movement through shopping space, it is possible to see how they could be constituted as an example of Goss’ strategies of reclamation and resistance.
Perhaps rather than in the tactical occupation of spaces, it is in the subversion of systems of signification that flashmobbing more closely answers Goss’ plea. The points agreed upon for meetings strain under the pressure of the accumulated bodies, and pedestrians witnessing a flashmob struggle to accommodate what they see within the rational logic of the civic square or the mall. Flashmobbing loosens the bonds that link proper names to places and the meanings that they signify: what happens is not a shopping drama, it’s not the outflow of a sporting match or a protest, it seems co-ordinated and purposive, but happens so quickly and with little lasting effect. Flashmobs serve to throw up the alienated chaos of the asignifying ‘real’ lurking behind the symbolic order. Flashmobs also attempt to offer some rejoinder to consumer capitalism’s use of time as measure, and time as productive measure (one which homogenises and reduces objects to equivalence) by their brevity and lack of utility. They attempt to prevent the hegemonic cultural order from drawing ‘a bead’ on them on the commercial radar.
Cyborgs and nano-mobs
It is doubtful that many flashmobbers would think of themselves as cyborgs in Donna Haraway’s sense. Yet the way that they internalise technology, mentally map space based on online geographies, and form networks through text messages, emails, discussion lists and websites would suggest that they are inextricably implicated in modern technologies, and technologies in them. They are cyborgs in the way that their organisation and meetings are not bounded by physical or electronic frontiers—their meetings cross real and virtual space.
In enacting something ostensibly ‘purposeless’ and ‘pointless’ en masse, a calculatedly ridiculous public act synchronised between a hundred members or more, flashmobbers invoke the alien and robotic logic of machines and robots. Like androids, they operate as a group to perform repetitive actions, and also like androids, the motive of their (apparent) sentience is opaque. A flashmob can be seen as cyborgised by its mass production of similitude. In the way that it injects machinic strangeness into the everyday, flashmobbing not only draws on a rich tradition of surrealist absurdity, but also taps into the way that the digital has made the external world “hum with the unreal, the strange and the fantastic.”
Flashmobbing is predicated on acephalous, self-determining, and emergent groups. The flashmob is another incarnation of the virtual community. Like so many new software technologies, from blogs to chatrooms, flashmobs are based on the de-centred, grassroots ‘tribe’—a social grouping accreting around a shared interest that does not require its members to be ‘actually’ present for them to gather (but which, in the case of flashmobs, do take concrete form). These tribes forge a sense of collective identity that does not reside in the individual, but only through identification and sublimation of the unitary ego:
I don’t want to talk about myself, because a flash mob is no one’s property… It is not a product or a service, it is the energy of the crowd, which many people feel and they get a positive spiritual feeling from it.
For the individual flashmob member, belonging at least may herald new existential territories outside of those presented in shrinkwrap and delivered up in the cold light of the televisual—possibilities for action and belonging, however transitory, in solidarity with something ‘underground,’ outside the norm.
By the same token, flashmob identity is directly comparable with the consumer ideal of late capitalism—identity composed by brand (group) allegiance, infinitely susceptible to mutations in product, concretising for the brief instant around a mode, a style, a form, and then dispersing again in the buffeting volatility of the market. It is the essence (or practice) of cool, made difficult to capture by its fleeting nature. There is an insider thrill to a flashmob list, the frisson of being in a clique, on the boundaries. In the face of the “strange passivity” that “haunts our lives” flashmobbing seeks to invigorate social ties and devise new molecular assemblages of sociality.
At the hazard of appearing to side with a dour protestant work ethic—and denying the vigorous links and exchanges between satire and the language of the marketplace—there are substantial risks involved in valorising the ‘fun’ of flashmobbing over any other value it may have. As Andrew Calcutt has argued in Arrested Development, much of Western culture seems intent on infantilising the individual and extending the period of adolescence, the West’s ideal human state, for as long as possible. Teen culture (or products and services expressly marketed at teens) is increasingly promoted to people in their 20s and 30s, to increase profits and spread the costs of product development as far as possible across consumer groups. In a recent survey by the advertising and marketing firms Spin and Sweeney, the age group pegged as the most significant for marketers and advertisers in Australia was 16-28. In one analysis, flashmobbing does nothing other than reproduce the political powerlessness of adolescents within the context of harmless nonsensical play.
Ultimately, as is to be expected in a totally transparent, globalised world driven by the grinding insistence on the new, flashmobbing will not endure as a strategy of resistance or play. Just as Situationism tore itself apart trying to sustain integrity over time and an enlarged, plural membership, the mob is likely to be a flash in the pan. Nor will it escape recuperation. One can easily imagine flashmobs co-ordinated by marketing and PR firms around product launches or placement, or similar techniques employed to raise brand awareness.
Flashmobbing does signal that some kind of resistance to the real of consumer capitalism can take place on a minute, molecular level (the extension of 90s identity politics), however, as well as providing one of a range of possible models for present and near-future social organisation—brief, mediated confluences of bodies (virtual or actual) accreting around a single issue that disperse to reform elsewhere under different auspices. It is also a love letter to a carnival history sent to a grim, science fictional future, a nod to the everyday theatre of the absurd, to acts of comedy with skulls at their heart, to rebellion everywhere.