Monday, July 14, 2008

REGULATING THE COMMONS OF CULTURE

Thinking again, as I'm sure a number of us are, through Dale's call for a Slow Poetry, I stumbled upon (by way of Silliman's blog) Zizek's brief article "The Ambiguous Legacy of '68" contained in the most recent issue of In These Times. Zizek sketches out four glaring contradictions specific to late capitalism which may (or may not) be strong enough to mark it's end. In doing so he appeals to the notion of "commons" as defined by Hardt and Negri, the same notion which drives Dale's sense of a Slow Poetry:

... does today’s global capitalism contain contradictions strong enough to prevent its indefinite reproduction?

There are (at least) four such antagonisms: the looming threat of ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of private property rights for so-called “intellectual property”; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, last but not least, new forms of apartheid, in the form of new walls and slums.

The first three antagonisms concern the domains of what political theorists Michael Hardt and Toni Negri call “commons” — the shared substance of our social being whose privatization is a violent act that should be resisted with violent means, if necessary (violence against private property, that is).

The commons of external nature are threatened by pollution and exploitation (from oil to forests and natural habitat itself); the commons of internal nature (the biogenetic inheritance of humanity) are threatened by technological interference; and the commons of culture — the socialized forms of “cognitive” capital, primarily language, our means of communication and education, but also the shared infrastructure of public transport, electricity, post, etc. — are privatized for profit. (If Bill Gates were to be allowed a monopoly, we would have reached the absurd situation in which a private individual would have owned the software texture of our basic network of communication.)

We are gradually becoming aware of the destructive potential, up to the self-annihilation of humanity itself, that could be unleashed if the capitalist logic of enclosing these commons is allowed a free run.


Of particular interest here is the privatization of what Zizek refers to as "the commons of culture." Argoist Online editor Jeffrey Side recently sent a number of messages to Brit Po listservs calling our attention to the rumored regulation and restriction of the internet by 2012. Although this digitally-based enclosure act hasn't yet been officially confirmed or announced, what we do know — as Paul Joseph Watson points out — is that a number of moves have been made to regulate and restrict internet usage over the past decade. This is familiar to us, right? The issue is such that Obama has been forced to establish a position on it.

At a time when we (poets, artists, critics, activists) already find ourselves struggling to negotiate the digital divide, even the rumor of further regulation is enough to drive one mad. And here regulation is not the dialectical opposite of privatization — the two would, as they always do, work in tandem to construct a situation wherein the free-flow of information would be limited to privilege those with the capital to shove their ideologically-fucked, cultural trash down the throats of millions. Isn't it for this reason that not thousands but millions have jumped from using Myspace to using Facebook as the social-networking site of choice? Some of us, like myself, have given up entirely on such sites, tired of the need to constantly reconstruct over and over again the virtual veils through which we form communities and exchange information. As one social-networking site shits the bed, giving way to another that will inevitably shit the bed because of big money, we see ourselves constantly running on the spot, forced to shift tons of information from one virtual location to another. Poetry communities in particular are surprisingly dependent on these sites. We might consider Blogspot itself one. Facebook another. In fact, the National Poetry Foundation has a Facebook profile through which it has, in conjunction with the NPF website, been disseminating information around the recent conference at Orono.

Like squatters, millions of people have invested so much of themselves and their communities in these sites that these sites are central to the "commons of culture" Zizek talks about. But we don't own them. The information we compulsively upload in an effort to shape our communities belongs not to the communities we construct but to the companies and corporations we freely give it to in an effort to reach others beyond them. In other words, the very mediums through which many of us discuss struggle are themselves crucial sites of struggle and are precisely what is at stake. The medium may not be the entire message, but it is always a central component of it.

As a small press editor and publisher — and certainly as a poet — I find myself completely alarmed and utterly unhinged by the thought of further internet regulation and restriction. My wife and I already fork over $50 a month to have the access we do to the web. Cost is always a form of restriction, right? And this to say nothing of the cost of the machines themselves, the need to keep up with upgrades and such so that we might continue the conversations we've started and find our way into other conversations that may be of equal importance to us.

Using the post to circulate print information on anything beyond a local scale is already a dead letter, an impossibility, an utter joke. Since the US Postal Service has done away with surface mail (which was untimely to begin with) sending publications to people in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Japan and elsewhere GROSSLY EXCEEDS the cost of production. But for many of us invested in print production, in bookmaking and other practices, the material object itself is part of the information we aim to disseminate. With rising postal rates and the rising cost of print production we find ourselves — at least those of us intent on casting a geographically broad transnational net — becoming increasingly dependent on the web. That the only affordable medium for exchanging textual information may find itself further regulated and restricted is an outrage. What happens when the only effective medium we have for forming national and transnational communities encloses us in culturo-virtual ghettos, coralling us in like cattle and excluding us from reaching out to communities beyond our own so that organizing on any level beyond a local level becomes an impossibility? Again, this is a medium from which millions continue to be excluded. Even if low-income families across the globe have free internet access at libraries and schools or free wi-fi connections through local businesses (which most of the undeveloped world doesn't) what is an hour or two of access a day compared to those who enjoy twenty-four hours of uninterrupted access through a corporation like Verizon, one among a number of corporations proposing further regulation and restriction? It's like arming someone with a slingshot and pitting them against a fully-equipped, mechanized army of millions.

Naturally, there are a number of assumptions that run through this rant — and more than a few statements that have to be theorized MUCH further. But the most important assumption here is that every poet and all poetry is always already political, located at all times on a site of struggle — and the site of struggle itself, as rumors of further net regulation suggest, is always in danger of falling away from us.