Posted tagged ‘Walter Benjamin’

Fight for your rights? The problem with “copies.”

December 12, 2009

Today The New York Times published this story about “backlist titles,” books that were once top sellers in paper format, which may or may not be reissued today as ebooks. As publishers work to reformat and reissue such titles, the question of who owns the rights to reproduce these titles – authors or publishers – explodes back onto the scene. The fact that a change in format (from paper to electronic books for example) compels a new round of copyright battling is interesting, raising many questions: is the electronic version a separate “work” with a separate copyright as opposed to the paper version, or is the electronic version merely a copy of the paper work, which therefore puts the original copyright into play?

Behind this copyright question, a deeper question lurks: what is a copy? Obviously the copy is not identical to the original; a copy must be different, a unique object. But on the other hand, how different is too different? At what point does an object become so different from the original that it no longer counts as a copy? This ontological question about copies (or simulacra) and originals (a la Benjamin and Baudrillard), difference and repetition (a la Deleuze), etc., may seem cute or sophistic, but it could be a real thorn in the side of more practical, legal, ethical and political debates about the right to make copies. While I’m on a roll referencing European philosophers: might this problem of the copy be the Derridean lynch-pin which, when pulled out, will cause the whole copyright house of cards to deconstruct (self-destruct)? If we can’t define what a copy is, how can we tell if a copy has been made? How can we tell if an illegal copy has been made, or profited from?

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Defintions: Privatization, again.

December 4, 2009

This week I’m reading and teaching Kristin Ross’s mind-blowing, award-winning book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture. Although the book deals with France in the 1950s and 1960s, it is also quite rich in generating theoretical insights which could be applied more broadly. Ross effortlessly balances empirical cultural study with critical theory, spinning off a new critique of modernity that is rich in particular historical details, much like Walter Benjamin’s work.

One of her key theoretical concepts is “privatization,” by which she means not the private control or ownership of resources, but a certain kind of alienation, individualism, even solipsism, a withdrawal into oneself. She writes:

The movement inward – a whole complex process that is in some ways the subject of each of my chapters and that Castoriadis, Morin and Lefebvre all called “privatization” – is a movement echoed on the level of everyday life by the withdrawal of the new middle classes to their newly comfortable domestic interiors, to the electric kitchens, to the enclosure of private automobiles, to the interior of a new vision of conjugality and an ideology of happiness built around the new unit of middle-class consumption, the couple, and to depoliticization as a response to the increase in bureaucratic control of daily life (p. 11).

Hence, privatization here refers to an overdeveloped sense of privacy, a withdrawal into one’s private home, private thoughts, into one’s subjectivity and individuality. This is a political problem just as much as is the question of who owns your mp3s, your sewage sludge, or any other resource. Ross begins to spell out the political consequences of the idea by riffing on Castoriadis again. Privatization

…emerges when a society’s most important characteristic becomes its success in destroying the political socialization of individuals, such that one experiences public or even social matters not only as hostile or foreign but also out of one’s grasp, unlikely to be affected by one’s actions (p. 106).

This use of the term “privatization” can thus help us to understand why Americans are so hung up on home ownership, why they love their cars so much and hate ‘politics’ so much. It can help us see the personal, individual, subjective consequences of capitalist society’s obsession with privatization. It links up in nice ways with already familiar sociological terms like “bowling alone” and “the lonely crowd.” It connects readily with Habermas’s well-known worries about the decline of the public sphere.

What value could we get out of such a concept? What does it matter if what is being privatized is not our commodities, our possessions, our resources, but rather our time, our space, ourselves? Ross’s brilliant book brings these questions to light, questions which seem eminemently useful, in a new way, for our project on this blog.

Rethinking Our Resource Taxonomy

May 27, 2009

At the endpoint of our last discussion, we came to the conclusion that if was necessary to sort out the assumptions involved in classifying resources into the categories of Natural, Technological, and Cultural. In particular, we need to figure out how our ideas about access and enclosure might change depending on what sort of resource we are addressing. In order to set up a foundation for further inquiry, here are a few points that have already come up and some initial questions that emerge:

1. Taking from Walter Benjamin’s notions about the nature of science and technology, as well as more recently-codified notions of envirotech, we want to approach technology as a relationship between humans and nature. This idea presents us with a potential nexus between natural and technological resources which may complicate our understanding of exactly what types of resources are being accessed or enclosed in certain instances (i.e., privatized water infrastructure).

2. In other instances, the boundary between technological and cultural resources seems similarly complex. For example, when DRM applied to an audio file, the process of enclosure is being practically applied across a spectrum of technologies (hardware, software, media file) that manage a relationship between a song and a listener. The ultimate object of enclosure is both a cultural resource (a song) and a technological resource (an audio file).

3. In both of the prior instances, there seems to be a tension arising between the task of addressing technology as an intermediary between people and some other resouces and the task of addressing technology as a resource in its own right.

4. When addressing points 1 and 2, do we understand technology’s work in managing the relationship between person and natural resource the same way that we understand it’s work in managing the relationship between person and a cultural resouce? In essence, this is to ask whether we have some assumptions about some sort of fundamental public rights of access to natural and/or cultural resources.

4a. Almost certainly, notions of auteurship will feature prominently in tracing the different sets of “rights” as related to these two types of resources. Do we imagine that cultural resources are produced though processes that grant their creators some sort of monopoly – economic or otherwise – over their use (as copyright suggests)? If so, where do we locate the limits of those monopolies and what entities or institutions should codify those limits?

5. On this note, we want to make sure to interrogate the notion that Cultural and Technological resources can be grouped together as “artificial” (i.e., human-made) in opposition to Natural resources.

Intersection of Nature and Technology, again, from Walter Benjamin to Virtual Water

May 20, 2009

Your previous post was so inspiring that I had to respond in a fuller form than the comments.

On the one hand, there are several recent trends that point in the direction Arthur is talking about – e.g. all the recent news about switching our medical records over to all-digital, “paperless” billing for telelphone, cable, bank and utilities customers, etc. There is a sense in which, at least informationally, we are moving more and more to an all-digital environment, where the digital version feels like “the original” and all physical, analogue manifestations like a printout feel like copies. It’s worthwhile, even if his ecological argument is worthless, to reflect on some of the historical trends he identifies.

On the other hand, your critique based on the very analog energy and natural resource costs required to operate the ever-expanding global network of digital (i.e. electronic) devices hits Arthur’s argument where it hurts. This really gets me interested as a historian of technology. I’m very inspired by the idea, once expressed by Walter Benjamin in One Way Street, that although “the mastery of nature is, so the imperialists teach, the purpose of all technology…technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man” (Reflections, p. 93).

Science and Technology: these two words describe the relationship between humans and our natural environment – what do we know about that environment? how do we use, manipulate and impact that environment? Every human production requires consumption. Producing mechanical or electrical power, for example, always requires the use of some preexisting natural material or force–sun, water, wind, wood, coal, gas, oil, etc. Technological systems like our electric power grid never function – cannot function – without appropriate inputs of human effort (work, use, maintenance) and inputs of natural forces or resources. Science (broadly, the production of knowledge about nature) works the same way. This formula (human-tech-nature) works equally well for describing the water mill grinding grain, Pasteur observing bacteria under the microscope, or a network of cellphones spreading over the globe like Starbucks (or propagating like rabbits, if you like).

You found this little nugget of Benjaminian wisdom lurking behind Arthur’s argument. It can be found hiding in almost any pat techno-determinist narrative like Arthur’s. And it’s going to be an important nugget to keep in mind as we try to make even stronger ties between our analysis of natural resources and technological resources.

When we think about technological and cultural resources, we need to seek the hidden natural resources behind them. So for example, John Allan of King’s College London, an expert on the water economy of the Middle East, coined the term “virtual water” (AKA embedded water, embodied water or hidden water) to mean the amount of water required to produce any given good or service. In this same vein, we could ask: how much virtual coal do we burn in each blog post? As you argued, this is what Arthur misses.