Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: December 2005

Why the World Wide West Wasn’t Won

One of the interesting things about moving are all the objects you rediscover, whose existence you had completely forgotten. I’ve just been sorting through my paperwork, hoping to find things I can now discard, and I came across the following essay that analyses why metaphors of the “frontier” and the “revolution” came to be adopted to describe internet technologies – and that also analyses how these metaphors actually may have impeded the sort of libertarian political ideals the metaphors invoked.

I have been struck for some time by the early (and, for some, continuing) faith that the technologies underpinning the internet would, by themselves, make regulation of internet speech and of intellectual property impossible. This faith in many ways replicated the faith of an early Marxism – of the sort the Frankfurt School came to criticise – that believed that the development of mass production would, in and of itself, usher in a more emancipated society. I decided to explore some of these issues in the following article.

Life then moved on – shortly after I wrote this, I finally managed to escape what had at one point looked like becoming a permanent stint as an IT consultant, and to move back into my more “traditional” community sector work – and I never got around to revising the article and submitting it for publication. I’m sure the scholarship in the field has now moved on considerably, rendering the piece most likely no longer viable for an academic journal (if, in fact, it ever was viable). I have also moved on, making some of the claims below no longer feel fully accurate or well-expressed. Still, I’m struck by the resonance of some of the basic concepts for the work I’m doing now, and thought the article might be worth airing on the blog. Read more of this post

Holiday Theory Fix

I’ll be away from the blog over the holiday period, preparing to move house, write an article, and put together an application for a lectureship in planning – not necessarily in that order. For those seeking a theory fix in the interim, I recommend the University of Chicago’s random academic sentence generator, where the alarming thing is how often the sentences actually do make a kind of theoretical sense, if you think about them hard enough…

Homeland Insecurity

Little Red BookSavage Minds drew my attention to the story, reported originally in the Standard Times South Coast Today, that a UMass Dartmouth student was visited by the Department of Homeland Security after requesting a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book via interlibrary loan.

My initial reaction, posted to Savage Minds, was that the story seemed a bit… odd. It’s admittedly been a while since I lived in the US, but I never had to provide my social security number to request a book from interlibrary loan. And then there’s the issue of Homeland Security priorities: why would a request for a single work by Mao take priority, given all of the other issues students and faculty research that are more closely related to immediate security threats? And the further problem that the story is essentially a third-hand account: a student described the incident to two professors, who in turn recounted it several weeks later to a news reporter looking for reactions to the recent revelations on Bush’s authorisation of warrantless surveillance of US citizens.

Not surprisingly, others had similar questions and, as the story bounced around the blogosphere, some of these folks set about investigating whether the story were a hoax. (I was lazier – after some initial internet searches to confirm that the newspaper and reporter appear to be real, and that the professors named in the article appear to exist and teach in relevant areas, I satisfied myself with emailing the problem to the good folks at Snopes.)

As this investigation has unfolded, the story has become, if anything, odder than the one reported in the original article. A copycat story, repeating the narrative of the original, but transposing the events to UCSC and naming Bruce Levine as the faculty source, began circulating – and was quickly demonstrated to be a hoax. And minor facts of the original article were also quickly disproven: social security numbers are not collected by UMass Dartmouth for campus transactions – whether for interlibrary loan or other purposes – nor does the library there have any record of anyone placing an interlibrary loan request for Mao’s Little Red Book.

At the same time, the reporter who published the original story has insisted that the story was sincere, and that he published after confirmation from the two university professors named in the article. One of those professors – Brian Glyn Williams – has stepped forward to defend the still-anonymous student but, in the process, has provided a few other details about the incident that are stranger than those reported in the original article. According to Williams, UMass has no record of the interlibrary loan request because the request was made through another library entirely, and the Homeland Security officers personally picked up the offending book from the source library, and took it with them to the student’s home, when they went to enquire to what purpose the student had requested the book.

The story now sits in a very awkward place, with many people suspecting that the student may have misrepresented the facts, or even invented the story in its entirety, without realising that it would suddenly reach a far wider – and more critical – audience. Others have argued that, if the story has even a grain of truth, it merits concern – and that the recent wiretapping revelations lend the story some credence, even if specific facts may not be fully correct.

I have to position myself on the skeptical side of the continuum on this one. I am very curious to know whether there is any relation between the story as reported, and the actual events (was the student visited by Homeland Security, but for another reason? was there some inadvertant miscommunication between the professors and the student, resulting in a somewhat distorted story that hit the press? etc.). Others are trying to get the student to come forward, and Homeland Security to comment, so we may have a clearer story soon.

Update (22 Dec.): While Boing Boing has posted an update that quotes library and university sources who do not believe the story is a hoax, Aaron Nicodemus, the reporter who originally broke the story, has published an update that quotes sources from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI who are highly skeptical that an investigation would proceed as reported in the original article. Nicodemus writes:

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said the story seemed unlikely.

“We’re aware of the claims,” said Kirk Whitworth, a DHS spokesman in Washington, D.C.

“However, the scenario sounds unlikely because investigations are based on violation of law, not on the books an individual might check out from the library.”

Mr. Whitworth pointed out that while the original story stated the student was visited by agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the DHS does not actually have its own agents. Under the umbrella of the DHS are Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Inspector General, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Coast Guard, among others.

Mr. Whitworth could not comment on the record whether the agency monitors inter-library loans, or whether there is a watch list of books that the agency maintains.

An FBI spokeswoman was similarly skeptical.

“I have never heard that we would go after someone because of a book,” said Gail Marcinkiewicz, who works in the FBI’s Boston office. “That event in itself is not a criminal activity. I can’t imagine how we would follow up something like that. Everyone is protected under the First Amendment, which would include what you would read.”

Nicodemus has attempted to contact the student and the student’s parents, but they have refused to comment.

Update (24 Dec): BoingBoing now reports that the story has been confirmed as a hoax. News articles covering the hoax admission can be found at the Boston Globe, and at South Coast Today. It will be interesting to see, as Robert KC Johnson has asked, what action, if any, UMass Dartmouth will take. It will also be interesting to see, as Savage Minds has suggested, whether this hoax will now be used to discredit legitimate accounts of the abuse of investigative powers in the war on terror.

Use Value, Exchange Value – and Collection?

Convolute H in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project relates to collection, and collectors. Its concerns are very similar to the ones Benjamin expresses in “On the Concept of History” – which is, among other things, a critique of a kind of historicism that seeks to document the past “the way it really was”.

In “On the Concept of History”, Benjamin argues (if you can use this term for a work that tries to induce a gestalt perception in its readers, through the juxtaposition of meaning-filled fragments) that a connection exists between historicism – the attempt to document the past exactly as it was – and the belief that historical “progress” will inevitably and automatically bring about emancipation. For Benjamin, both forms of thought are reactionary and disempowering, because both fail to recognise the potential power of human agency in history. The “true picture of the past”, for Benjamin, represents the one in which the historian has “fann[ed] the spark of hope in the past” – that is, recognised the potential that the past might have been different from what it was. For Benjamin, this task is intricably linked to the ability to seize the emancipatory potentials of the present time.

Convolute H pursues similar concerns – playing off the image of the historicist (who seeks to keep all historical remnants in their proper order in time and space), against the image of the collector (who eclectically reassembles and juxtaposes historical remnants in relationships that may have little to do with their actual temporal relationship). For Benjamin, it is the collector, and not the historicist, who accurately recognises the contingency of the past – the fact that history might not have developed in a particular way, that other potentials were also possible, but were never realised.

Convolute H, however, juxtaposes these reflections about history, with parallel reflections about use value and exchange value. Benjamin was aware that many critics of capitalism offer their criticisms in the name of use value, and against exchange value – arguing, for example, that capitalism is unjust because it focusses on profits, rather than recognising and adequately compensating the practical, useful, material contributions of labour to the economy. Within this framework, emancipation would follow from an elevation of use value to its proper social status. Benjamin, however, takes a different tack – rejecting, not only the capitalist who sees only profit (exchange value) in goods and labour, but also the critic who sees in these same things only their use value. Both, for Benjamin, are examples of forms of thought that work against the realisation of potential freedoms.

Instead, Benjamin proposes the model of the collector – someone whose interest in goods does not relate to either their exchange value or their use. The collector adopts a purely impractical relationship to the objects collected – and it is precisely this impractical attitude that breaks out of the utilitarian relationship to objects and to people that, for Benjamin, as for Adorno and Horkheimer, represents the primary force of unfreedom under capitalism.

The collector is therefore a potent metaphor for Benjamin, capturing a relationship to history, and also a relation to production and consumption in the contemporary world, as these might potentially be transformed in the “open air of history”.

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