On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

To speak for one’s own network

In file-sharing, media ecology, philosophy, politics, post-piratical, Sweden on March 4, 2009 at 5:10 pm

The first Pirate Bay trial is over (the verdict is due to be announced on April the 17th, and I write “first” as it will probably be followed by appeals upon appeals).
A new decade is upon us. This comes to mark what I, and many people with me, would argue is the “post-piratical” era
.

The files have already been uploaded. A jurisdictional bulwark (IPRED; ACTA; FRA; data retention) has been raised throughout Europe, to allegedly deal with the nastier sides of unrestricted file-sharing – while the everday, small-scale sharing of perfectly normal individuals continues and seems to do so for the unforeseeable future, and while even bigger, more institutionalised actors like The Pirate Bay seem slippery to blame and to admonish. This, since the entire phenomenon appears to be distinguished by an agency that is so fractured and distributed, that no one actor can be said to bear the only responsibility.

Nevertheless, they chose to target The Pirate Bay. Why? It is a molar, crystallite formation out of the hazy gas that is the global, unrestricted file-sharing microcosm. It is one of the few real “faces” of an otherwise many-headed, nebulous phenomenon. It is one of those formations whose spokesmen, when lined up in court, are supposed to speak for their cause – although they personally seem to be of the kind who rather spend time building new boxes than thinking and acting outside the supposed “box”.

Each of the representatives in this courtroom were forced to speak for their own, respective networks, to construe justificatory frameworks of their own. It was increasingly obvious that many of these clashing frameworks are, in fact, mutually incommensurable.

This has also forced people to take sides. In Sweden, it is now obvious that a fraught line runs through society, where one side of the population are fully attuned to the new medium and its wilder, unregulated, heterogeneous agency, while the other side want to curb this seemingly ungovernable entity, to minimize its alleged negative side effects. While the question “Can they do it?” is an eligible one here, I will continue this posting not by trying to answer that question but by giving you a brief excerpt of some of my thesis work in progress, where I am trying to define the role of entities like The Pirate Bay in a Swedish context. One of my presuppositions for the chapter is that Sweden is characterised by a concept of liberty and a societal model that is, whether you like it or not, shaped by a century of social democracy.

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Social democracy is, thanks to its grassroots origins, to be thought of as distinct from authoritarianism or more precisely, vanguardism, but it nevertheless contains authoritarian elements or tendencies. These tendencies can be seen especially in social democracy’s historical mode of defending national interest (as in the case of Swedish self-interest regarding the power blocs of the Cold War), and in the workers’ movement strategy of maintaining ‘a popular front strategy of inclusion made in the language of the old vanguardist rhetoric of exclusion’ (Wark 1997b). This can also be seen in the movements for public education and health that Berggren & Trägårdh (2006) write about.

It was also Richard Barbrook’s invocation of this latter strategy that prompted McKenzie Wark (1997b) to argue for a rejection of the dichotomy of vanguardism versus social democracy (a dichotomy he blames on the philosophical heritage of Hegelian dualism). Wark holds that such a rejection can be achieved by rephrasing the connection between the Deleuzian concepts of ‘molecular’ and ‘molar’. Wark emphasises that it would be a mistake to think of these concepts as polar opposites. Rather, one needs to see how the molecular flows through the molar, and also constitutes it. The dichotomy of “either-or” tends to blind us to the possibility of an “and-also,” he explains, as if it was all a question of either social democracy or vanguardism, of either molar coherence or molecular atomism.

Deleuze & Guattari elaborate on these concepts in their essay “Politics” (1983) where they interpret politics as a process of flux which always has an unpredictable outcome. They criticise the notion of capitalism as a repressive machine and suggest that it could be opposed from within by redirecting the creativity and multiplicity of its immanent flows.

Political mobilisation is generally seen as a ground-up process, from the molecular towards the molar – with the ultimate molar structure of the infrastructure as the most global systemic element, encompassing the entire system in question. In his reference to Deleuze, Wark notes that the French philosopher’s first book (1991) was on David Hume. Wark argues that the war-against-all libertarianism of the ‘Californian ideology’ actually owes more to Hobbes than to Hume, and thus tries to envisage a more benevolent political ecosystem:

Rather than think of the state as a limit to the free action of individuals, why not think of it as a productive rephrasing of those powers and desires in ways that produce a collective good?
[…]
Rather than think of abstract human individuals as existing in as pure atoms, why not think instead of the actual clumps and packs in which people actually live their lives? These, Hume notes, are not characterised by the war of all against all that is thought to prevail in a purse state of individualism. Rather, we find that within any self-organising human group, the group is bound together by feelings of what Hume calls sympathy. The role of an institution is not to limit the competition of individuals, but to extend the sympathy one might feel for an immediate group to a more abstract social collectivity. (Wark 1997b)

However, an obvious critique is appropriate here: If the state is not to be seen as the repressive leviathan of the Hobbesian legacy, but rather as a benevolent entity, Wark’s political ideal is only focussing on one of the two ways in which this entity takes on a benevolent character. What Wark emphasises is a typical Anglo-American appreciation of the state as a heterogeneous conglomerate of interests; essentially, an empirical experiment in plurality.

But as the Swedish example shows, the state (as a molar entity of a global kind) can also be seen as the facilitator of molecular freedom, in systemic terms. The overarching molar structure delimits a range of action, within which molecular agents are granted various energies and possibilities for redirecting the immanent flows of the system as a whole.

While the act of political mobilisation, in its conscious and intended form, is a ground-up movement, from the molecular to the molar, the prescriptive agencies allowing or disallowing for this action all stem from the configuration of the system as a whole. Hume’s understanding of the state, Wark maintains, is one where the state is seen as a ‘productive rephrasing’ of the multifarious powers and desires of individuals ‘in ways that produce a collective good’ (1997b), rather than one of the state as a limit to free action. This is also one of the fundamental social democratic understandings that seem to underpin the Swedish concept of liberty.

Further, all conscious political mobilisation creates visible entities that become possible targets for critique and counterattacks. Although it is a common trope to think of p2p as based upon typically networked, non-hierarchical formations, the political wing of unauthorized file-sharing tends to generate molar formations. Wark points out that such formations tend to to generate entitlements and spokespersons:

Institutions create entitlements. Entitlements to space, to time, to language, to appearances. Entitlements to a future, to the present, to various pasts. There are all kinds of entitlements. When they come into conflict, there is often no way of adjudicating between them. […]
Among the many entitlements that require constant renegotiation involve those of speaking. Who can say what, when and in what manner? Who owns the past? Or the future? Or at least, who is entitled to speak of it? (Wark 1997a)

To speak for the network or for the institution is an act that generates an entitlement. The deterritorialising tendencies of p2p networking are here seen to be contrasted by reterritorialising, molar tendencies of political mobilisation. The question is to what extent this mobilisation is conscious or non-intended. The formation of strategic structures like The Pirate Bay is the intentional work of a few activists, but it is only made possible through the harnessing of a wide range of actors and agencies, both human and non-human. The reflexive act, exclusive to human subjects, of relating back to one’s own habits and actions becomes a speech act which is performative in itself in that it identifies singular actors (or idealised ‘actants’) by way of its discursive invocation. Every such speech act makes some form of delineation, underscores some form of particular tendency immanent to the phenomenon at large. It points out a molar order in the molecular entropy; be it when blaming the individual file-sharers for ruining the record industry, or by invoking file-sharing as “the natural order of the Internet”. Every invocation of something particular acts to strengthen one’s own entitlement and to (unwittingly or not) formulate a stance that is somehow political.

This can all be related back to the idea of a ‘copyfight,’ and can be merged with the ideas of Michel de Certeau (1984). To depict the pro-file sharing side as only strategic or, respectively, only tactical would be to ignore the complex oscillation between these two modes that any actor would be characterised by. Depending on what mode of interpretation one chooses, either “side” can be said to occupy either a strategic or a tactical mode, simultaneously.

In the current situation, the entertainment industry can be characterised as if operating from a vantage, strategic position in legal terms, having access to the disciplinary power of the judicial apparatus (although lacking any form of complete oversight or control). Simultaneously, they strive to impose a continuous control, based on modulation and protocol in the form outlined by Deleuze in his postscript on control societies (1995: 177—182), by the imposition of DRM and a normative logic in the intended use of its cultural products. Yet, the wide incidence of unauthorized file-sharing is testament to the failure of the entertainment industry in doing this.

Arguably, the file-sharing infrastructures (that is, the Internet in general, as an ensemble of various file-sharing networks, not only its renewed, application-based layer of dedicated p2p applications) here amount to a form of strategic advantage for its individualised users.

That is one of the reasons why it makes sense for a researcher to interpret the discursive tropes of those actively involved in file-sharing, according to a methodology which identifies those instances where the referents invoked in the discourse become ‘actants’ of this more idealised kind. Even the trial against The Pirate Bay (February—March 2009) became subject to plenty of argumentation and even speculation as to whether unauthorized file-sharing is detrimental to sales; how widespread it is; whether file-sharers would buy more or less cultural goods; where the chief agency lies, in the act of illicitly circulating copyrighted material; and what role The Pirate Bay would ultimately have in this ecosystem. As even lawyers, engineers, and industry experts were struggling with the inherent vastness, opacity and heterogeneity with the phenomenon, every judgment was exposed to be exactly that: an estimation.

While different estimations carry differing normative weight, and can be more or less well-argued for, they serve to elicit certain elements of the overall phenomenon that can serve to frame it in partisan ways. It is therefore important to have a scrupulous and critical methodology to assess them by. Furthermore, what the work of Luc Boltanski & Laurent Thévenot shows us is that many of these arguments, or even whole groups of reciprocally related arguments, become incommensurable when compared to those of the opponent, simply since they derive from analytical standpoints that are poles apart. The position of Scandinavian-style, benevolent corporatism – where the state comes to sanction large portions of unrestricted file-sharing (a position argued for by for example Roger Wallis, Peter Jenner, and others) – is thus, it can be argued, based on politico-philosophical foundations radically different from those of the opposed position. This latter position is one that advocates retribution against civil file-sharers, and acts for the protection of specific trade interests.

The former position can be seen as safeguarding the global molar structure of the well-being of the public at large, while the latter can be seen as safeguarding the more local molar structures of the various trade associations. What is more, the former can be said to adhere to a normative ontology of the Internet which accentuates the inevitability of unrestricted file exchange, whereas the latter can be said to argue for a normative ontology of the Internet where exchange is regulated, safe and sanctioned by designated, institutionalised providers.

Both of these positions can be seen to give rise to discursive microcosms which might be internally cohesive and sensible, as they appear isolated on their own. When reciprocally compared, however, they seem incommensurable. Hence the seemingly endless lack of consensus.

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Berggren, Henrik and Trägårdh, Lars (2006) Är svensken människa? Gemenskap och oberoende i det moderna Sverige, Stockholm: Norstedts

De Certeau, Michel (1984; trans. by Steven Rendall) The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley, CA, Los Angeles, CA, and London: University of California Press

Deleuze, Gilles (1991 [1953], trans. Constantin V. Boundas) Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature, New York, NY: Columbia University Press

Deleuze, Gilles (1995 [1990], trans. Martin Joughin) “Postscript on Control Societies,” in Negotiations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press [originally published as “Post-scriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle”, L’autre journal, 1990]

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1983, trans. John Johnston) On the Line, New York, NY: Semiotext(e)

Wark, McKenzie (1997a) “The Virtual Republic”, a paper for the Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences University of Sydney. Published also on the Nettime mailing list, 3/11 1997 [http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9711/msg00003.html, accessed 1/11 2007]

Wark, McKenzie (1997b) “Rethinking Social Democracy”, Nettime mailing list thread (email header “Deleuze Contra Barbrook”), 30/12 1997 [http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9712/msg00045.html, accessed 1/11 2007]

  1. […] needn’t envisage the debate in such a polarised form, however. In my previous posting, an alternative conception of the different modes of sociality pertaining to file-sharing in a […]

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