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Tasty Theory Clusters!

Posted by: | March 26, 2009 | 36 Comments |

I know some of you Lit-Theory heads out there are hungry for some name-droppy goodness after my last couple of mostly-data posts. Here are two subsections from my theory-frame chapter, where I try to lay out theoretical justification for my research questions:

4.1 The Answers of Cultural Studies and Peer Production to the Problem of Property

In their efforts to confront the perceived failures of both industrial capitalism and state socialism, both Peer Production and Cultural Studies must confront the issue of private property. Both Peer Production and Cultural Studies have often been critical of private property regimes and the inequalities of power and privilege these regimes can serve to create. They differ however, in at least one crucial respect, Peer Production has, for the most part, carefully limited its critique of private property to intellectual property systems, whereas Cultural Studies has tended to mount a broader assault on the notion of private property. This contrast raises important questions for this dissertation to investigate.

It is not difficult to find Peer Production theorists drawing a “bright line,” to use the legal term, between the Intellectual Property regimes they wish to modify or overthrow, and the physical property regimes they wish to leave intact. In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lessig makes the case that Physical and Intellectual property are fundamentally different:

The law has a good reason, then, to give me an exclusive right over my personal and real property. If it did not, I would have little reason to work to produce it. Or if I did work to produce it, I would then spend a great deal of my time trying to keep you away. It is better for everyone, the argument goes, if I have an exclusive right to my (rightly acquired) property, because then I have an incentive to produce it and not waste all my time trying to defend it.

Things are different with intellectual property. If you “take” my idea, I still have it. If I tell you an idea, you have not deprived me of it. An unavoidable feature of intellectual property is that its consumption, as the economists like to put it, is “non-rivalrous.” Your consumption does not lessen mine.

(Lessig, 1991, p 131)

The special qualities of intellectual property, Lessig goes on to argue, are what warrants treating it differently from physical property. Thus, when Lessig argues that intellectual property should be less strictly protected in favor of nurturing and informational commons, his arguments should be understood to apply solely to intellectual property, they are not, in Lessig’s understanding, to be expanded to apply to property in general.

Yochai Benkler, at the opening of his Wealth of Networks, draws similar limits around the scope of his theory of “social production.” In the industrial age, he writes, societies were forced to make difficult choices between different priorities because of the hard limits of physical property. The different qualities of information and the information based economy are what may allow some of these limits to be surpassed.

Predictions of how well we will be able to feed ourselves are always an important consideration in thinking about whether, for example, to democratize wheat production or make it more egalitarian. Efforts to push workplace democracy have also often floundered on the shoals – real or imagined – of these limits, as have many plans for redistribution in the name of social justice. Market-based, proprietary production has often seemed simply too productive to tinker with. The emergence of the networked information economy promises to expand the horizons of the feasible in political imagination.

(Benkler, 2006, p 8)

Later, Benkler more concretely limits the scope of social production, writing:

There are no noncommercial automobile manufacturers. There are no volunteer steel foundries. You would never choose to have your primary source of bread depend on voluntary contributions from others. Nevertheless, scientists working at noncommercial research institutes funded by nonprofit educational institutions and government grants produce most of our basic science. Widespread cooperative networks of volunteers write the software and standards that run most of the Internet and enable what we do with it. […] What is it about information that explains this difference?

(Benkler, 2006, p 35)

What explains the difference, Benkler goes on to tell us, are exactly the qualities of information that Lessig identifies in his work. Benkler and Lessig, along with other theorists of Peer Production (Boyle, 1996; FIND MORE) draw the same bright line around their critique of private property. The digital commons, for these thinkers, is to be for information only, physical goods should be left to the property regimes that, in their view, have served well to distribute goods and give incentives for production.

Cultural Studies, on the other hand, tends to draw on its Marxist roots to make a more sweeping criticism of private property systems, both intellectual and physical. Take, for example, this passage from Negri and Hardt, where they suggest that the rupture opened up by the difficulty of regulating intellectual property might be fruitfully extended to undermine other private property regimes.

It seems to us that, in fact, today we participate in a more radical and profound communality than has ever been experienced in the history of capitalism. The fact is that we participate in a productive world made up of communication and social networks, interactive services, and common languages. Our economic and social reality is defined less by the material objects that are made and consumed than by co-produced service and relationships. Producing increasingly means constructing cooperation and communicative commonalities.

The concept of private property itself, understood as the exclusive right to use a good and dispose of all wealth that derives from it, becomes increasingly nonsensical in this new situation. There are ever fewer goods that can be possessed and used exclusively in this framework; it is the community that produces and that, while producing, is reproduced and redefined. The foundation of the classic modern conception of private property is thus to a certain extent dissolved in the postmodern mode of production.

One should object, however, that this new social condition of production has not at all weakened the juridical and political regimes of private property. The conceptual crisis of private property does not become a crisis in practice, and instead the regime of private expropriation has tended to be applied universally. This objection would be valid if not for the fact that, in the context of linguistic and cooperative production, labor and the common property tend to overlap. Private property, despite its juridical powers, cannot help becoming an ever more abstract and transcendental concept and thus ever more detached from reality.

(Negri and Hardt, 2000, p 302)

This notion, that the instability of intellectual property does not simply call for information to be treated differently, but should rather lead to a destabilization of all forms of private property is echoed by many authors within the field of Cultural Studies (Wark 2004; Terranova 2004; Ross 2006; Dyer-Witheford, 1999).

In most cases, this desire for a broader destabilization of private property relations seems to stem from Cultural Studies authors’ understanding the relations of production engendered by private property as inherently unjust and exploitative. Ross, for example, argues that, by limiting their critique of property to intellectual property, those involved in the “copyfight” movement to restrict the scope of copyright law ignore the possible effects of privately owned physical infrastructure on the digital commons, as well as the needs of the physical laborers that are involved in the production and maintenance of this infrasturcture. He writes, “Because they are generally ill-disposed to state intervention, FLOSS [for Free, Libre and Open Source Software, yet another name given to FOSS] engineers, programmers, and their advocates have not explored ways of providing a sustainable infrastructure for the gift economy they tend to uphold. Nor have they made it a priority to speak to the interests of less-skilled workers who lie outside of their ranks.” (Ross, 2006, p 747)

Ross’s critique complicates the ethics of Peer Production in an important way, highlighting how it may be blind to some of the ways its vision of a better society enabled by shared information resources could be limited by leaving systems of physical property intact. It is also important to point out two things which, in turn complicate Ross’s critique. First is the fact that, under some circumstances, some Peer Production theorists have made the case for government intervention in the realm of building the physical infrastructure of the information society. For example, Yochai Benkler recently penned an editorial for the left-leaning blog Talking Points Memo in which he urges the Obama administration use government funds to subsidize the construction of greater broadband internet capacity (Benkler, 2009). Second, some who have studied the Peer Production phenomenon have made the case that those involved in the Peer Production movement may limit the scope of their political arguments, not out of an ideological aversion to the state, but out of a pragmatic desire to build new working coalitions across old ideological boundaries. Gabriella Coleman writes that her study of the Debian Linux community suggests that, “Most hackers, however, recognize that

since each developer has personal opinions about politics, it behooves them not to attribute a

universal political message to their work as this may lead to unnecessary project strife and

interfere with the task at hand: the production of superior software. ” (Coleman, 2005, p 8)

This dissertation will attempt to answer several questions about how this tension between the possible dangers of limiting the critique of private property to intellectual property and the possible dangers of expanding this critique plays out in the Peer Production communities of the Wikimedia constellation.

– What effects, if any, does the private ownership of the physical infrastructure of information production have on the wikimedia constellation?

– Do we see evidence of what Nick Dyer-Witherford calls “divisions between immaterial, material and immiserated labor,” within the Peer Production community of the wikimedia constellation? That is, how well or poorly are the interests of those not involved in the production of intellectual property represented?

4.2 Identity, Difference and Peer Production. What are the politics of the Peer Production Heterotopia?

Michel Foucualt’s notion of the heterotopia is one of the many theoretical resources developed by Foucault that Cultural Studies scholars have found widely useful. The heterotopia is a sort of special social space in which ordinary social relationships may be suspended and new possibilities explored. These are distinct from utopias, which are wholly imaginary, in that they are actual, realized social spaces. As Foucault puts it:

There are also, and probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places, actual places, places that are designed into every institution of society, which are sorts of actually realized utopias in which the real emplacements, all the other real emplacements that can be found within the culture are, at the same time, represented, contested, and reversed, sorts of places that are outside all places, although they are actually localizable.

(Foucault, 1984, p 178)

Two things are important to note in this definition. First is the way that the heterotopia provides a sort of mirror for society, a place in which all the other “emplacements,” a word Foucault here defines as a social entity “defined by the relation of proximity between points or elements,”(Foucault, 1984, p 176)1 of a given society can be, “represented, contested and reversed.” Second is the fact that Foucault stresses that heterotopias, unlike their utopian counterparts, are “actually localizable.” That is to say, a heterotopia must be embedded within, and thus structured by, the society it reflects.

Foucault goes on to list a variety of examples of the heterotopia. In the modern era, he writes, “museums and libraries are heterotopias in which time never ceases to pile up and perch on its own summit, whereas in the seventeenth century, and up to the end of the seventeenth century still, museums and libraries were the expression of an individual choice. By contrast, the idea of accumulating everything, the idea of constituting a sort of general archive, the desire to contain all times, all ages, all forms, all tastes in one place […] all of this belongs to our modernity.” (Foucault, 1984, p 182) This goal of creating a “general archive,” can also be seen reflected in Wikipedia and the Wikimedia constellation. The home page of the Wikimedia Foundation tells visitors they are committed to, “a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” (Wikimedia Foundation, 2009)

Furthermore, Foucault lists a several principles that define what he believes to be the most important qualities of heterotopias. Among these, he writes that, “the heterotopia has the ability to juxtapose in a single real place several emplacements that are incompatible in themselves.” (Foucault, 1984, 181) This ability of heterotopias to bring together otherwise incompatible, or even hostile, elements, has been seized on by other Cultural Studies scholars as a politically interesting feature of the heterotopia. Music scholar Josh Kun has written about the musical form of the heterotopia, what he calls “audiotopias.” These audiotopias are, “sonic spaces of affective utopian longings where several sites normally deemed incompatible are brought together not only in the space of a particular piece of music itself, but in the production of social space and mapping of geographical space that makes music possible.” (Kun qtd in Gopinath, 2005, p 42) Gayatri Gopinath expands this idea in turn, arguing that, by permitting the temporary peaceful coexistence of otherwise incompatible social groups, audiotopias have played an important role in creating spaces of relative freedom for some queer members of the South Asian diaspora. Gopinath describes an, “outdoor Summerstage concert in New York City’s Central Park in July 1999,”

the female Sufi devotional singer Abida Parveen’s powerful stage presence delighted a large, predominately South Asian crowd that, for a brief moment, reterritorialized Central Park into a vibrant space of South Asian public culture. While many of the women in the audience remained seated as Parveen’s voice soared to ever greater heights of ecstasy and devotion, throngs of mostly working-class, young and middle-aged South Asian Muslim men crowded around the stage, singing out lyrics in response to Parveen’s cues, their arms aloft, dancing joyously arm in arm and in large groups. Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism in which music plays a central role in enabling the individual to commune with the divine, has a long history of homoerotic imagery in its music and poetry. The sanctioned homosociality/homoeroticism of the Qawaali space in effect enabled a group of men from the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, gay-identified South Asian men, to dance together with abandon; indeed they were indistinguishable from the hundreds of men surrounding them. […] They were thus producing a “queer audiotopia” to extend Josh Kun’s notion of an audiotopia, in that they were conjuring forth a queer sonic landscape and community of sound that remapped Central Park into a space of queer public culture, the locus of gay male diasporic desire and pleasure.

(Gopinath, 2005, p 59)

Gopinath here demonstrates the political potential of the audiotopia, and thus of the heterotopia more generally. By permitting the coexistence of things that would otherwise be difficult to mix, the heterotopia allowed for a traditionally less-powerful queer community to “poach” a public space for itself.

Yochai Benkler has suggested that Wikipedia may itself be a space in which the historically less powerful may have an opportunity to express themselves in the same space as the historically powerful. Benkler points out that, unlike many other, more commercially oriented encyclopedias, Wikipedia permits the coexistence of a variety of points of view. By way of example, he compares the articles covering Mattel’s Barbie doll on commercial encyclopedias and Wikipedia. With the exception of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Benkler finds that the commercial encyclopedias tend to provide a one-sided view of Barbie stressing the commercial success of the doll and the diversity of her wardrobe. (Benkler, 2006, p 287-288) While the best of these encyclopedias, “includes bibliographic references to critical works about Barbie,” Benkler writes, “the textual references to cultural critique or problems she raises are very slight and quite oblique.” (Benkler, 2006, p 288)

In contrast, both Britannica and Wikipedia provide a more complete examination of the range of different opinions regarding Barbie’s cultural significance and function. Britannica, Benkler tells us, provides, “a tightly written piece that underscores the critique of Barbie, both on body dimensions and its relationship to the body image of girls, and excessive consumerism.” “It also,” Benkler continues, “makes clear the fact that Barbie was the first doll to give girls a play image that was not focused on nurturing and family roles, but was an independent professional adult […]. The article also provides brief references to the role of Barbie in a global market economy.” (Benkler, 2006, p 288) Wikipedia, for its part, contains an article on Barbie that, “provides more or less all the information provided in the Britannica definition […] and adds substantially more material from within Barbie lore itself and a detailed time line of the doll’s history.” (Benkler, 2006, p 288) Benkler goes on to demonstrate how Wikipedia not only presents readers with a diversity of opinion on Barbie, but also provides a space for many different authors to contribute to the Barbie article. The various interactions and negotiations between these authors are preserved on special pages attached to the article known as history and talk pages (more on these later). By permitting this ongoing negotiation and making it available to its readers, Benkler argues that Wikipedia embodies a “social conversation” model of cultural production that can help to ameliorate the ability of corporate interests to force other voices out of commercial Mass Media. (Benkler, 2006, p 289-290)

Thus, Benkler’s case for the benefits of “social conversation” cultural production mirror the political possibilities of the heterotopia as developed by Kun and Gopinath. Working from this point of contact, this dissertation will attempt to examine the politics of the heterotopia as they are really played out in the Wikimedia constellation. Foucault argued that the heterotopia was defined by being “actually localizable,” which I take to mean that the heterotopia, unlike the utopia, is not wholly free to suspend power relations, but rather can rearrange them only partially, contingently, and within limits. Gopinath’s example shows this clearly. The public space “poached” by queer subjects at the concert she describes is temporary, limited, and by definition invisible. To attempt to better understand what the limits of heterotopian political possibility might be within the Wikimedia Constellation, this dissertation will attempt to answer the following questions.

– In what ways can we observe “otherwise incompatible” forms of expression, politics, and identity co-existing within the Wikimedia constellation?

– What are the terms of this coexistence? To what extent are historical power relationships actually suspended within the space of the Wikimedia constellation and how is any such suspension achieved?

1A notion not unlike Latour’s “network.”

under: Diss Fragments

36 thoughts on “Tasty Theory Clusters!

  1. By: Gavin on March 28, 2009 at 1:31 am      

    I really think this is an important topic: why (most) free culture people aren’t Marxist, don’t see themselves aligned with other leftist movements… Part of it I think has to do with the kind of labor hackers engage in: intellectual, immaterial labor. They also tend to be well educated privileged (i.e. white male) members of the imperial core who benefit from private property relations that provide them with cheap and plentiful commodities. There’s a pronounced libertarian individualist ethos running through hacker culture — do you know where this comes from? I mean, obviously nerds spending lots of time by themselves, but is there a kind of intellectual genealogy you’ve come across? Anyway I would love to see things like thepiratebay come into the leftist fold.

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