Textual Events (3 of 5)

Textual Events (3 of 5)

2003-09-14

How to commodify “intellectual property” when the object, a text, is made of other texts, and each reading is a re-writing? The Politics of Information, Part 3, considers the identity of event and machine.

Section 3: Textual Events: Intellectuals and Their Property

Will this become possible? Will we one day be able, and in a single gesture, to join the thinking of the event to the thinking of the machine? Will we be able to think, what is called thinking, at one and the same time, both what is happening (we call that an event) and the calculable programming of an automatic repetition (we call that a machine)?

[….T]o think both the machine and the performative event together remains a monstrosity, an impossible event, and therefore the only possible event. But it would be an event that, this time, no longer happens without the machine. Rather, it would happen by the machine. To give up neither the event nor the machine, to subordinate neither one to the other, never to reduce one to the other: this is perhaps a concern of thinking that has kept a number of “us” working for the last few decades. But who is this “us”? Who would be this “us” whom I dare to speak of so carelessly? Perhaps it designates at bottom, and first of all, those who find themselves in the improbable place or in the uninhabitable habitat of the monster.
-Jacques Derrida, “Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2) (“within such limits”)

Like much of his recent writing, Derrida’s essay on De Man touches continually on the problematics of intellectuals (“who is this `us’?”) in the context of an accelerating electronic mediation of textuality. Most readers will probably find that the figure of electronic mediation per se is approached only asymptotically, by way of such constituent building-blocks as the figure of the typewriter, the machine, the program, or through the various insistent themes of electronic mediation (copying, theft, singularity, the organic and the code), etc. This is rather like approaching DNA by way of discourse on the constituent proteins.

Nonetheless, De Man’s notion of the “textual event,” as redacted by Derrida, offers a path into the world of the intellectual as increasingly structured by property law and the lines of such executive agency as the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Property law borrows from the romantic ideology of textual creation, which features the artist as the performer of a non-reproducible event. Without any sense of irony, property law seizes upon the singularity that associates author with event in service of the practice of reproduction: property law insists on the uniqueness of the creative act in order to legitimize (the sale of) copies. As De Man comments with respect to the act of theft in Rousseau’s Social Contract: “There is nothing legitimate about property, but the rhetoric of property confers the illusion of legitimacy.” The rhetoric of property depends upon keeping the unique “event” fundamentally distinct from the act of reproduction, and yet simultaneously permanently connected to each other: by conferring the “illusion of legitimacy,” the rhetoric of property materializes itself in the form of profit. In this sense, capitalist accumulation depends on the contradiction between the need for universal exchangeability (i.e., the pressure for all things and experiences to be reducible to money equivalents), and a rhetoric of singularity (this-unique-I owns this-unique-thing which unique-you may purchase).

But texts are never unique in their origination, being social products of a general or community intellectuality (so that we can speak of “the Romantic poets” as a group or the presence of Chartist ideas in their writing, whether they intended to confront Chartism or not). Nor are texts fully equivalent in their various iterations, so that we can speak, for instance, of each reading as itself a re-writing, so that the text continuously slips away from its author. Indeed, texts are continuously slipping away not just from the intentions of their authors, but also the best plans of editors, scholars, publishers, educators, and all the lines of authority that would conserve meaning at some point of origin. Beneath the markings on the page, human agency continuously shifts the meanings of language itself, so that no text can ever mean what it meant at some other time. Think, for instance, of the continuous changes that general social activity makes in such seemingly-fundamental keywords as “citizen,” “person,” “rights,” “prosperity,” “man,” “woman,” “child,” or “health.”

The moment of textual origination (as a unique event) is always an encounter with the “machine” or program of meanings in social circulation. Likewise, the machine of textual reproduction & distribution is never distinct from the unique, plural eventualities of reception. Distinct encounters with individual readers produce difference in the “text itself.” The capitalist economy of intellectual property can’t account for the “labor of consumption” in adding value to cultural capital. Nor can it account for the continuous production of new meanings through general intellect: what rights does society have in “intellectual property” as a result of its continuous activity in editing all texts by way of the minute-by-minute transformation of language itself? The reading of a text, the alteration of the meaning of a word employed by a text, the clipping or cutting from a text: all of these are as much of a “textual event” as the “original” act of inscription. Which is to say: the “machine” and the “event” are always together.

But if the social machine and the textual event are inextricable, why should it be so hard to think of them that way?

The property regime insists upon the illusory separation in order to project a false re-connection. The system of ownership must manufacture an authentic “original” (with falsely total property interest) in order to have “copies” with contractually limited property interest. Never mind that the notion of “originator-therefore-owner” in the context of intellectual property forecloses an accounting of social contributions in the same way that saying Columbus “discovered” America forecloses our understanding of the hundreds of complex societies occupying the continents that he washed up against. In both cases, the lie of “discovery” has the same function - supporting the system of ownership advanced by the owning class, over and against everyone else. The same ideology of discovery is what makes it possible to patent a human gene. With the rich support of the state and the collaboration of education and the press, the lie of “discovery” almost completely occupies the realm of common sense; to think otherwise about intellectual activity is literally to enter, in Derrida’s words, “the uninhabitable habitat of the monster.”

So we come to the present at the juncture of two contradictory vectors. The ubiquity of electronic mediation has pressed us further toward the task of theorizing the event “that no longer happens without the machine,” far nearer to Mark Amerika’s 1997 Grammaton than the author of the 1967 Of Grammatology could have supposed more three decades earlier. On the other hand, an equally unanticipated intensification of property law has emerged in the joint effort by transnational capital and the state to make thinking the relationship between event and machine far more monstrous than ever before.

The task of the moment, then, is to think the event “that would happen by the machine,” to think the return of the repressed social content of intellectual property in the form of materialized direct action by all those who produce, directly or indirectly. This means, at least in part, recognizing in the figure of “the machine” the reification of the human mass, and seeking in the machinistic event the mass intellection of the producing class. To an extent, this event is not so much a seizure of the means of (knowledge) production, but rather a recognition that the producing class already possesses those means.

Mark Poster leads off the section by exploring the desire of the state to control the deployment of technology (and technologically mediated speech), and then pursues the limits of capitalist and nation-state domination of the medium, tracing in Internet culture many of the qualities of non-commodified culture, especially popular self-consciousness of people themselves as culture producers. Describing “the way culture was experienced before modern capitalism,” Poster notes that “the performance of culture was most often the rewriting or recreation of culture, with no two communities experiencing exactly the same art.” There is for Poster a certain structural irony in that the proliferation of storage space helps to create multiplicities of cultural iteration similar to those created by earlier historical moments in which unique re-iterations were encouraged by the opposite circumstance, of an absence of storage materials.

Tracing the increased powers of intellectual property owners to police the rest of us, Kembrew McLeod explains some of the newly-enhanced rights of patent, trademark, and copyright, as well as completely new law, such as the “right to publicity,” through which public persons acquire rights over how their images are used. The owners’ impulse to control ranges well into the absurd–as when the Bush campaign paranoically registered dozens of potentially hostile domain names (bushsucks.com, bushsux.com, bushblows.com, etc) to itself, sending visitors to these addresses to its official campaign site. Laws supporting the privatization of culture for profit also serve the purpose of subduing critique, as when strengthened trademark laws (which have no “fair use” provision, as in straightforward copyright law) are employed by corporate owners to harass Web authors to remove images, corporate logos and even corporate names from websites critical of their activities. In order to highlight the absurd extremities to which IP police powers have been extended, McLeod took out a trademark himself–on the phrase “freedom of expression.”TM He owns it. You do not.

The efforts of absurdist media pranksters such as ®TMark are the subject of Caren Irr ‘s essay, which seeks to describe ways in which their efforts to use the system of socio-ideological reproduction to send new messages can be linked to a more capacious opposition to dominant forms of property relations more generally. Acknowledging the power of these parodic appropriations to “turn corporate ossification of social life into the content of Web-circulated critiques,” Irr studies the way that these parodies can themselves be absorbed into the IP regime.

Capitalism has long had the power to commodify even the most virulently anti-capitalist culture, perhaps never more than at the present, with Janis Joplin’s anthem being used to sell Mercedes cars, and Chinese workers under Beijing’s state capitalism putting in 14-hour days to make Communist souvenirs for Western tourists. Tara McPherson ‘s conversation with Anne-Marie Schleiner acknowledges that the “feeling of volition and control” and “illusory promises of transformation” sought by purchasers of commodified culture such as video games can be seen as a “seduction” and as “corporate strategies of narrative and structural address.” But she goes on to discuss some of the ways that hacktivist interventions at the level of code, in game patches or mods, represent at least the potential for hijacking the commodity form, a possibility that needs to be considered within the limits represented by the “avowedly nonpolitical” stance affected by most participants in gaming culture.

Paul Collins examines some of the ways he struggled with one corporate university’s expropriation of his labor. Harvey Molloy ‘s interview with George Landow explores the role of academic and commercial interests in elevating one “impoverished form of hypertextuality” (the Web) over much more capacious systems. Tracing in HTML and SGML the movement away from dynamic versions of digital textuality, Landow describes in the success of the Internet the success of a medium “suited chiefly to static texts that are created, formatted, and frozen.” Enforcing a textuality suited to commercial activity and commodified intellection, the Web makes “maintaing a dynamic website very time-consuming and therefore expensive,” increasingly limiting advanced forms of Web-mediated expression to those who can afford them. Exploring the Web’s possibilities for getting beyond some of the boundaries of discipline and genre in academic research and collaboration across international and disciplinary borders in such projects as his own Victorian Web, Landow is also cognizant of the need for those who would own their own expression to also own the material base of that expression, as in the case of students of wealthier nations who get around university censorship by maintaining their own servers.