lördag, januari 27, 2007

Why we're still not content with "content"

Jonas Andersson from the Liquid Culture crew at Goldsmiths College has written a piece in response to the published version of a presentation we held at 22C3 in Berlin just over a year ago, where we presented some concepts in relation to Piratbyran's activities.
This response is published as a chapter in a recent book, under the name The Pirate Bay and the ethos of sharing [pdf]. I find some of it worth commenting – in English, for once – and if some if it might be about details, it's only in order to try to highlight how our approaches are different (but not opposed).
Rasmus Fleischer and Palle Torsson — the authors behind the influential ‘grey commons’ speech — insist on talking about file-sharing as a horizontal activity; /.../ They thus equate ‘grey’ /.../ with the blurring of distinction between consumers and producers (they actually hold that the demarcation between these two is ‘impossible to institutionalize’).
I see this refusal to distinguish between ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ as a strategic, arguably even propagandistic move
What does it mean that the distinction between "consumers" and "producers" is impossible to institutionalize? Simply take a look at the existing copyright collectives. All the billions they collect by license fees on music in public places, on online streaming services like Last.fm, from cassette tapes and MP3 players. The money is supposed to "compensate the copyright holders", but the only way to identify any formal approximate of the group of humans known as the cultural producers, the systems have to rely on playlists from (highly formatted) FM radio stations. That, I'd say, is proof that such a distinction is impossible to institutionalize.

But it certainly does not mean that we today live in a post-modern world where every instance of cultural consumption should be regarded equally "productive" as any traditional authorship.
I think that Jonas Andersson reads us through a lens heavily influenced by the British cultural studies tradition, thus understanding the Grey Commons speech as an "attempt at a positive retribution of the productive nature of consumption". But I'm not so sure about that. Maybe it's rather the other way around: The consuming nature of production (a point where we both nod towards Walter Benjamin). It's exactly, as Jonas Andersson write, about "consumption so thorough, intense, dedicated that it goes into overdrive, becomes explicitly productive".
In a later lecture, I characterized "contemporary cultural production not as the opposite of consumption, but rather as a deviant kind of excessive and passionate consumption". And that's why I'm still not satisfied with asserting that consumption is "the primer ... the true locus of culture". We agree that consumption and production are false opposites, but I would like to add that it's mainly because it obscures the really much more useful concept: performing.

And that's also what I want to point at, when Jonas Andersson defends the word "content" against our indeed sweeping attack on it:
Even more problematic is the further assertion /.../ that we should refuse the term ‘content’ on the whole and instead talk about the Internet solely in terms of ‘communication'.
I find this not only counterintuitive but devaluing towards the work of us actual media producers: I for one certainly do not see my own creations as sheer ‘communication’ — I value them as true artefacts of beauty and non-conformance, although they are entirely digital. Eminent theorists like N. Katherine Hayles have shown that also virtual objects have materiality.
The materiality is the performative – "the art happens here" as elegantly visualizes in the Net Art Diagrams. Why communication should imply a denial of materiality is indeed hard to understand.
"Content" – the astracted object of copyright law – means immateriality, denial of context.

That abstracting "content" means eliminating the performative aspect always present in media use, becomes extremely clear by reading governmental strategy papers about "creative industries", like the recent The economy of culture in Europe.
the entertainment industry /.../ treat p2p as a clear and present danger
The formulation reveals a content-based definition of the entertainment industry which I find unfortunate, as it excludes everything from festivals and clubs to web communities (who largely affirm p2p, to some extent), only including the "immaterial" businesses in the "entertainment industry".
Maybe it's better to distinguish between a "content industry" on one hand, and an "entertainment sector" or "cultural sector" on the other, with the important difference that this sector is to a large extent "beyond measure"; immersed in a grey economy, and intermingled through performative acts with all other sectors of the economy.
Jonas Andersson warns against the risk of devaluating artworks and media producers; I rather see the risk of devaluating performances and performers, a risk that will probably remain strong as long as economic discussions about culture keep relating to the copyright discourse (if even in an antagonistic way!).

Of course a focus on communication, rather than content, does not make away with the need to talk about works of art. But we cannot wish away the fact that P2P networks are communication media, whee you are "fetching data" – even if you do it in order to be "copying artworks".
File-sharing becomes a consumer tool", Jonas writes. And that's probably correct – sociologically speaking. But understanding the dynamics of the file-sharing phenomenon cannot be the work of social sciences alone.
Horizontality is not altruism. But it makes effective information infrastructures. Information does not want to be anything. But internet will not listen to reason.
It is not the matter of ‘rights,’ like in the alleged ‘right’ of acquiring information for free; /.../
To put it bluntly: People copy because they can. Now deal with it.
I couldn't agree more.

Play is the new grey!


Anonymous Andie said...

Play is the new gray - http://thediagram.com/6_3/leisurearts.html

1/27/2007 04:39:00 fm  
Blogger Christopher Kullenberg said...

I agree with your view on materiality-performativity-communication. The three of them are inseparable, and are often confused, not necessarily a bad thing though. I believe there is a vast strand of academic debate on this subject, and I often clash in arguments (without labelling any movements) when it comes to this question.

Second, this quoute, "People copy because they can. Now deal with it.", I would disagree with. I would rather obscure it and rather think in terms of: "People were copied because they could", or, "Deal with it, because now people can be copied". People DO copy, in sociological terms. However people also kill other people in wars, and pollute the air with their cars. Why is that? Well, it is not because of people, but rather because of their technological Gestell.

1/27/2007 12:04:00 em  
Blogger rasmus said...

Andie: What a brilliant idea!

Christopher Kullenberg: Yes. Also: People copy because they want to be copied!

1/27/2007 02:17:00 em  
Anonymous Miguel Caetano said...

Does the distinction between the "producer" and the "consumer" still makes any sense nowadays? If so, what might we call a DJ or, even more problematic, a mashuper?

Ideal types don't function anymore. If given the required resources and training, any file-sharer will become an author, because what ultimately motivates him is the same passion for art. Hybridism is the rule when proliferation replaces scarcity. If we place too much emphasis on P2P and the sharing of digital "content" we forget the whole ecology of creativity and expression that it makes possible: netlabels, mashups, mixtapes and jam sessions simultaneously happening in several places around the world. This happens within and outside the net. Most importantly, live shows can be seen as some kind of a new sacred ceremony in a age where social physical contact is becoming scarce. Communion is more important than communication, because it's not fake. Attali knew this all along since 1977. It's rather telling that the majors have only started to listen to him now...

1/27/2007 04:54:00 em  
Blogger rasmus said...

Miguel Caetano: Interesting to note that Attali turns up at MIDEM...
However, I'm still not sure about his concept of "composition" as some ideal final stage of musical evolution, but I've after all not finished his book yet. What do you think?

"Communion is more important than communication" is a nice phrase. I still think Bataille has even more to say than Attali on that point...

1/27/2007 05:07:00 em  
Anonymous Miguel Caetano said...

Rasmus: I too haven't finished reading "Noise" yet. But there's an article by Attali published in 2001 called Potlatch Digital" that is a good updated summary of the book:

(...) the real pleasure of composition would exist outside of the market economy, just for the fun of it, where violence is rechannelled through creation. For when I create something, and I then give it to you, I may have a chance of living in your memory forever.

What he's trying to get at, I think, is some kind of a parallel between composition and free software development. We are used to think that music and art are the product of individualistic autorship and, thus, can not be subject of peer-production like code. But we can't ignore the deep simillarities between the two modes of dematerialized labour. They're, after all, made of data.

What are the lessons to be learnt from this analogy? First of all, that what matters is what can't be digitalized and mass-reproduced. In the case of music, this is about experience, the sharing of emotions between the author /consumer and the consumer/author. This is about communion and it goes way outside the market economy.

Regarding the difference between communion and communication, it's a detournement of Thomas Merton, who was a trapist monk ;-)

“The deepest level of communication is not communication. It is communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words; and it is beyond speech; and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear (sisters and) brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are”

1/27/2007 06:25:00 em  
Blogger Jonas Andersson said...

Overall, thanks for some interesting feedback! And it’s correct that I very much draw on the British cultural studies tradition. I surely do not think this tradition is particularly outmoded.

Re: ‘content industry’ (yes I agree with you, this more precise term is better than the overly broad ‘entertainment industry’)
I believe there is a tendency to underestimate the fact that we are all living in capitalist societies and that the very ideologies of this ‘content industry’ actually do permeate also those subjects who file-share on an everyday basis, yes even those file-sharers who openly declare war against the MPAA.
All people are predominantly consumers of culture, and a very small minority are fortunate enough to be productive, or re-productive enough to create artefacts like mixtapes, videos or blogs that could actually attract enough new consumers for this production to be potentially commercially viable. (Trust me, I know how hard this is myself!)
However performative our daily media-use might be, most people seem to still relate themselves to the very structures that establish the one-way broadcast model of communication which we thought was becoming outmoded. Many people still use their file-sharing not so much to establish a performative display of the nature of digitization, nor to take a political stand, nor to fetishize over 0-day warez and GBs of data, but to simply download and watch that old film. (Surely, to file-share can still be all these abovementioned things, in an objective sense – but it’s a bit like saying that people go to the grocery store to be performative, not to get a good deal on beetroots.)
I know this might seem as old-fashioned as the British cultural studies tradition itself, but history is like that: the modalities of the analogue kingdom still linger within the apparently shiny new world of p2p. In other words: some (quite powerful) institutionalized distinctions of “consumers” and “producers” unfortunately still remain, and thereby shape our worldviews. Movie studios still make blockbusters, and file-sharing alone does not negatively impact sales anyway, so the commercial incentive and capitalist order largely remains. Although it’s true, as you point out, that collecting societies etc. are malfunctioning in terms of who gets the actual benefit of them, they certainly don’t malfunction in terms of upholding this capitalist order. But I do agree, however, if what you mean is that these *new forms* of consumption/production/performativity (as exemplified by last.FM and p2p) are impossible to institutionalize in terms of production|consumption.

It all ties back to a form of Marxist dialectic between acknowledging yourself as on the one hand a subject to divisions of labour, to structures outside of our own willing – and on the other hand as a subject in your own right, able to take an autonomous stand. We oppose what the content industry say, but we still have to relate to the power structures generated through their ideology.
Interestingly, many contemporary cultural critics seem to distil their criticism from very intellectual grounds, sharing approaches either with Italian autonomist Marxism or with groupings that could be seen as explicitly alternative, standing, as it were, outside of mainstream society, posing vital alternatives (here we can place movements such as FLOSS, netlabels, net.art, indymedia etc). Now, all this is fair and good, but I think there is a tendency to fetishize this autonomism or alternative stance, almost so that one transfers this stance to be representative of contemporary popular culture at large.
Even though many people might openly oppose, say, George W. Bush, the MPAA and the Fox media empire, and critically oppose the idea of a ‘content industry,’ they nevertheless spend most of their leisure time as subjects to this very same industry, playing World of Warcraft and watching Spiderman 3. This is, in a sense, Negri’s moment of truth: the socialization of labour, the relentless saturation of capitalism into everything we do also justifies and paradoxically even facilititates pockets of autonomist resistance like Pirate Bays or netlabels. But I’m still curious: Is it really resistance, and in that case, how much so, and for whom? (I still feel that Joe Beercan, who downloads the occasional porn film from TPB, isn’t really marching the streets with Hardt & Negri...)

Re: ‘content’ as “the abstracted object of copyright law – immateriality, denial of context”;
Isn’t it ironic that the ‘content industry’ strives for this kind of definition of “content” as neatly excerpted, package-able, DRM-able - while file-sharers simultaneously tend to emphasize the duplicable, indexable, indeed abstract nature of data? Both constitute a form of reification of ‘content’ as if it was this ‘immaterial’, de-contextualised thing... This reification seems to happen largely because of the politically oppositional grounds of Kopimists vs MPAAists, but it once again ties back to this Marxist dualism (and of course the material nature of digitization)...

Re: performativity
I don’t think there is such a risk that performances and performers will be devaluated. After all, performances are much harder to duplicate than ‘content,’ don’t you think? Yes, netlabels, mashups, mixtapes and jam sessions will go on; the question I find interesting is: why the new emphasis on all this? These activities are, as we know, quite ancient too. Is the new emphasis ultimately a reaction which stresses the autonomist uses of digital media “against the grain”? And is this essentially a warning sign that this capitalist “grain” is ever more pervasive than before?

1/31/2007 04:36:00 em  
Anonymous Miguel Caetano said...

Is it really resistance, and in that case, how much so, and for whom? (I still feel that Joe Beercan, who downloads the occasional porn film from TPB, isn’t really marching the streets with Hardt & Negri...)

Yeah, but he surely would make a porn film with his wife and send it to porntube, if he had a chance to get a camera on his hands ;-) I'm only half-joking...

The problem at the moment, as I see it, lies on the fact that, as you say, capitalism always finds new means to get a hold of distribution channels, as it is happening right now with video hosting businesses. HTTP traffic is now for the first time in years higher than P2P traffic. And, in this sense, I agree with you. There's no data to sustain what I'm saying, but I guess people prefer youtube to bittorrent trackers because the former offers a "more consumable-ready" experience to the end-user while the latter are more troublesome. Youtube is sheer passivity, fast content, no need to dwell with technical details.

Now, I'm not a technological determinist but I think the decentralized/distributed architecture behind P2P networks was at least in some part responsible for the huge growth of the remix culture represented in mixtapes, mashups and netlabels. And, thus, I don't see that this "new emphasis" as "essentially a warning sign that this capitalist “grain” is ever more pervasive than before". On the contrary, because as H&N say, "resistances are no longer marginal but active in the center of a society that opens up in networks".

But I see some dangers when people change from a truly many-to-many model to a commercial plattform that acts like some sort of an aggregator. This creates a level of dependency and insinuates centralized control, which goes against the ethics of file-sharing.

2/02/2007 09:24:00 em  

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