How We Remain Modern

Writing on his Occupy 2012 blog, Nicholas Mirzoeff begins a post on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s ‘Declaration’ in ‘the manner of Derrida in Limited Inc., … with the inside matter’. He does so to tease the authors of Multitude and Commonwealth for having published their pamphlet on the global social movements of 2011 using a ‘Copyright…All rights reserved’ license. ‘For a project about commoning, wouldn’t a copyleft or Creative Commons license be more appropriate?’, Mirzoeff asks. ‘OK, it’s only 99 cents on Amazon but you have to have a Kindle-friendly device: why not just put out a free PDF?’  

No doubt, for many, there is indeed something hypocritical about radical theorists and philosophers advocating a politics of the commons, commoning and communism, yet letting little of this politics impact on the decisions they make regarding their own work, business, role, practices and actions as authors. And all the more so when a good number of them end up supporting ‘feral’, profit-maximising corporate publishers as a result, despite the wide range of more commons-orientated and politically radical alternatives that are available.  (Hardt and Negri brought out ‘Declaration’ with Amazon, who are included on the list of privately-owned companies that aggressively avoid paying the standard rate of 26% corporation tax in the UK, along with Apple, Facebook, Google and Informa plc, parent company of both Taylor & Francis and Routledge.) Yet what’s so interesting about the question of the social/legal/professional stakes of sharing online, is the potential it contains to raise the ante for theory and philosophy even higher than Mirzoeff’s comments on ‘Declaration’ ‘as a form of copylefting - which he hopes ‘isn’t just a cheap shot’. For would addressing this question rigorously and responsibly not require us to also pay close critical attention to some of the ideas and practices that many initiatives associated with online sharing and the commons have themselves taken too much for granted, repressed, ignored, or otherwise relegated to their margins: ideas and practices to do with authorship, subjectivity, originality, the text, the book, intellectual property, copyright, piracy, and even the human?

To illustrate what I mean as far as the author, originality, and the human are concerned, let’s take as an example Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks. This book is published on an open access basis by using the kind of Creative Commons license that would presumably be considered by some to have been more suitable for ‘Declaration’.  In Prince of Networks, Harman extends and develops an earlier account of ‘The Importance of Bruno Latour for Philosophy’, in which he presents Latour as having given us ‘possibly the first object-oriented philosophy’. Harman does so on the grounds that ‘there is no privilege for a unique human subject’, for Latour. ‘Instead, you and I are actants, Immanuel Kant is an actant, and dogs, strawberries, tsunamis, and telegrams are actants. With this single step’, Harman writes, ‘a total democracy of objects replaces the long tyranny of human beings in philosophy’.  However, even though Prince of Networks is available open access, that doesn’t mean a network of people, objects or actants can take Harman’s text, rewrite and improve it, and in this way produce a work derived from it that can then be legally published. Since Harman has chosen to publish his book under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence, any such act of rewriting would infringe his claim to copyright. This applies to both the right Harman wishes to retain to be identified as the author of Prince of Networks, and to have it attributed to him precisely as a unique human subject; but also to Harman’s right of integrity, which enables him as a singular human being to claim the original ideas its contains as his intellectual property, and which grants him the privilege of refusing to allow the original, fixed and final form of Prince of Networks to be modified or distorted by others, be they humans or objects.

Granted, there’s probably no quick or easy way of responding to this raising of the stakes for theory and philosophy. To be fair, such social/legal/professional blindspots are far from confined to Hardt and Negri, Harman, or Latour for that matter, who likewise continues to act as if he is a modern in this respect, even as he insists we have never been modern.  In fact, oversights and elisions of this kind affect the majority of those theorists and philosophers who are currently attempting to replace the tyranny of the human with an emphasis on the nonhuman, the posthuman, the inhuman and the multi-scalar logics of the anthropocene.  Thanks to the way in which they, too, have responded to the issue of the social/legal/professional implications of sharing – whether it’s on a ‘Copyright…All rights reserved’ or Creative Commons basis - such ‘post-theory theories’ and philosophies continue to be intricately bound up with the human in the very performance of their attempt to think through and beyond it.

Be that as it may, the high stakes raised by your survey question remain - for hopefully this post, too, is more than merely a cheap shot.  So let me close with a question that’s also an exhortation: How as theorists and philosophers can we perform our work, business, role and practices differently – to the point where we might actually confront, think through and assume (rather than marginalise, repress, ignore or take for granted) some of the implications of sharing online for our ideas of authorship, subjectivity, originality, the text, the book, intellectual property, copyright, piracy – and, indeed, the human?


Image on front page by Dioctria (David) and available on Flickr


As we're transitioning into these new modes of information sharing and meaning making, we're bound to commit many seemingly hypocritical offenses despite our augmented concerns about our digital behaviors. In linguistic ethics, the onus of understanding the other is placed upon the listener. When we read and discuss these issues, we need to be aware of this responsibility, respond accordingly, and allow all involved the opportunity to align their argument (if necessary) to fit their personal ideology. Unfortunately, this may take time - a dimension the digital has warped mercilessly. 

But it seems as though authors such as Harman are off on the right foot and thoughtfully considering their copyright/left options. Perhaps the best way of uncovering our digital humanity entails making a leap of faith?

Kristopher, thanks for your helpful comment. I hear what you’re saying. I guess partly what I’m interested in is how all this plays out in relation to the work of thinkers such as Graham Harman and Bruno Latour – but we could of course also mention N. Katherine Hayles and Karen Barad - who have sought to interrogate ideas of ‘personal ideology’ and ‘humanity’, be it under the label of the nonhuman, the posthuman or the inhuman. (Hence my playing, not just on Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, but also on Hayle’s How We Became Posthuman, with my title.)

In other words, I’m interested in thinking, not so much in terms of a ‘digital humanity’ - or even digital humanities - as what might be called (rather clumsily, I admit)  a posthumanities. What would something of this kind look like? What forms could it take?

In this respect, can we use the question of the social/legal/professional stakes of sharing online as an opportunity to raise the stakes for contemporary theory and philosophy by asking: is there a something of contradiction, disjunction or blindspot between what we might write about the nonhuman, the posthuman, the inhuman, the multi-scalar logics of the anthropocene and so on, and how we actually perform our work, business, role and practices as theorists and philosophers? Would such a posthumanities not likewise call for 'new modes of address, new styles of publishing and authoring, and new formats and speeds of distribution', to borrow Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook's words from their Critical Climate Change series regarding the possibility of extinction.

One possible starting point for thinking about how we might address this issue is provided by Lawrence Liang in his essay ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Book’, which appeared in Gaelle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski’s edited collection from 2010, Access to Knowledge In the Age of Intellectual Property. There Liang recounts how ‘Indian culture does not draw a distinction between an agent who performs an action and the action that the agent performs'. Instead, 'an agent is constituted by the actions that he or she performs, or an agent is the actions performed and nothing more’.  If we were to translate this idea into the context of Western thought, we can see that the focus would be not so much on what a theorist or philosopher writes about the nonhuman, the posthuman, the inhuman, as on the theory and philosophy he or she acts out and performs regarding the nonhuman, the posthuman, the inhuman - or the commons, commoning and communism.

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