Postcolonial Piracy: Media Distribution and Cultural Production in the Global South

PP-cover2I have an essay in the fine new collection from Bloomsbury Books, Postcolonial Piracy: Media Distribution and Cultural Production in the Global South, edited by my friends/colleagues at the University of Potsdam, Lars Eckstein and Anja Schwarz.  The book grew out of a conference on the topic held in Berlin in 2011, and features some of the most important contemporary thinkers of global cultures of the copy, of piracy and alternative distribution/production systems as they are emerging around the world, including Ravi Sundaram and Lawrence Liang.  The book is an excellent response/companion to the eye-opening Media Piracy in Emerging Economies report.  What the essays and report share is an interest in understanding how informal economies and practices of distribution have established themselves in various parts of the world, how they relate to global capitalism and its more formal legal and economic structures, and how the metaphor of “piracy” helps or inhibits understanding the situation. My own essay, “Depropriation, the Real Pirate’s Dilemma” is one of my first attempts to think about global gift economies, and the possibilities offered by global access to new media, for a flourishing collective life in which property regimes are minimized.

You can download the complete text as a free PDF here.

MP3 Collecting Essay in New Book, Contemporary Collecting

I have an essay, “Meditations in an Emergency: On the Apparent Destruction of my MP3 Collection” in an excellent new anthology of essays called Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices and the Fate of Things, edited by David Banash and Kevin Moist.  It’s a great collection, and includes Stanley Cavell’s important essay on collecting, and nice work by Banash and others.  I got kind of obsessed with collecting while writing In Praise of Copying, since collectors are some of the most profound thinkers of the distinction between original and copy, or good copy and bad copy.  My essay is about what it means to lose and then try to restore a digital collection today, and is written in diary form, describing my own recent experiences with my MP3 collection.  On the one hand, it feels like data is infinitely retrievable today, and that collection is therefore quite banale (this is the argument that Simon Reynolds makes in his Retromania).  On the other hand, when you actually lose data, it turns out to be much more fragile, much more contingent than you thought.  But losing data can open us up to recognizing that, against the model of the private collector with his or her hoards, the basis of collection is sharing.  When the infrastructure that supports sharing really exists, our love of particular objects isn’t diminished, but our desire to hoard it is.

Update: The excellent PopMatters has just reprinted the essay in full here!

Global Bass essay in Boing Boing!

I just wrote an in depth introduction to global bass music for the excellent Boing Boing. What’s global bass?  Well, try this remix of native Canadian dubstep crew A Tribe Called Red, by Monterrey, Mx’s Javier Estrada for a start:

On Brian Massumi’s Semblance and Event

I have a longish review of Brian Massumi’s recent book, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts, in the new issue of Scapegoat: Architecture, Landscape, Political Economy.  You can download a copy of the entire journal here.

Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage and Copyright Law

I have an essay in a new book from Duke UP, Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage and Copyright Law, edited by intellectual property theorist and prankster Kembrew McLeod and dada scholar Rudi Kuenzli.  The essay, “Digital Mana: On the Infinite Proliferation of Mutant Copies in Contemporary Culture” is a pretty freewheeling spin through the work of Philip K. Dick and the late great graffiti sage Rammellzee, amongst others … taking the position that countercultures in the late twentieth century are very much concerned with the concept of infinity and how human beings can access it through various practices and counter-mathematics.  I apply some of Alain Badiou’s work on the politics of how we think about infinity to some examples that probably Badiou would not be interested in … but generally, I think Badiou is right that our ability to imagine and enact social transformation is related to our understanding of number, and that which is beyond number.  “Version like rain!”   Generally speaking, it’s a great collection, with work by Siva Vaidhyanathan, Joshua Clover, Douglas Kahn, Craig Baldwin, Jeff Chang, Jonathan Lethem and many others ….

Ice Fishing in Gimli

I recently interviewed Winnipeg based writer/artist/architect Rob Kovitz about his epic 8 volume 4500 page novel Ice Fishing in Gimli, for a chapbook published in conjunction with the exhibition of the book currently on show at The Department in Toronto, and curated by Michael Maranda of  the Art Gallery of York University.  The book is almost entirely appropriated from other people’s writings (some of the photos are by Kovitz) and Kovitz says that, amongst other things, he was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s similarly vast Arcades Project, which also consists largely of quotes taken from other people’s writings.

Kovitz’s book is a heroic Melvillean exercise, ice fishing instead of whale fishing, digital text archives instead of pen on paper, a similar sense of extensive intimacy with territories way off most people’s maps (although Guy Maddin and others have also made works focusing on Gimli, a town 75 km north of Winnipeg, originally populated by people of Icelandic descent).  I like the sense of Ice Fishing as an impossible book, far too long to actually read, but what’s strange is that Ice Fishing is a very compelling read, with a powerful narrative drive.  This produces a strong sense of pathos: the book seems to anticipate its own rejection or being ignored, even in the act of you exploring it.

I’ve been meaning to write an essay about the history of copying in Canada for a while, and Rob and I touched on this in conversation: Glenn Gould’s spliced sound recordings; John Oswald’s Plunderphonics; Christian Bök’s dictionary channelling Eunoia; Guy Maddin’s pastiche films; Gail Scott’s appropriated texts like My Paris and The Obituary; Nourbese Philip’s cut up slave narrative, Zong! Not to mention visual artists such as Michael Snow (the Walking Woman pieces for sure, but also the movie Wavelength which over forty five minutes focuses in on a photo of a lake or sea) or Shary Boyle’s perverse porcelains.  And McLuhan. And … there’s a lot of appropriation going on up here!  One might ask: why?

A2K Symposium and Book

I just wrote a short contribution to an online symposium held by legal blog Concurring Opinions to celebrate the publication of Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski’s book, Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property.  A2K is an interesting rallying point for folks working globally on a variety of issues related to intellectual property and/or the politics of copying today and the collection gives a broad and generous overview of the topic.  I particularly recommend Amy Kapczynksi’s introduction, Yochai Benkler’s overview of A2K and information commons, and the essays by Lawrence Liang, which were a revelation to me.  A2K resonates in a very clear way with recent events such as the shut down of the Internet during the Egyptian unrest, and WikiLeaks’ appropriation and dissemination of national archives and databases.  It’s part of a shift in IP research towards thinking about IP as a human rights issue.   You can download the whole book chapter by chapter for free from the MIT website.

Introduction to Erik Davis’ Nomad Codes

I wrote a loving introduction to my pal Erik Davis‘  Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica out now from Mike McGonigal’s Yeti Books.  The book collects some of Erik’s visionary writings from the last twenty years including some of his work for the late and lamented Gnosis magazine, reminiscences of a SoCal stoner youth, meditations on Philip K. Dick, Sun City Girls, Terence McKenna and other key figures.  You can read the introduction here. Quote:

Erik is known for his writing about gnosis, subject of his acclaimed first book, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information.  But what is the gnostic situation?   A basic definition: you are in a trap and you need to escape!  Many of us have lived our whole lives in this strange trap that’s variously given the names of late capitalism, postmodernity or just simply Babylon.  What happens to writing and writers in this situation?  Greil Marcus wrote that to understand Lester Bangs, you’d have to recognize that the greatest American writer of the 1970s might write nothing but record reviews.  To understand Erik and his fascination with weirdness and esoterica of many kinds, you’d have to recognize that just writing record reviews would be way too conservative an approach to actually describing our world today.”

Erik’s Trip

An introduction to Erik Davis’ Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoteria (Yeti Books, 2010). (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

My first memory of Erik Davis is of playing the Japanese game of Go together in an apartment in Brooklyn, in the dark days of the early 1990s, while the plagues of AIDS, the New World Order, and our own young male testosterone-addled consciousnesses swirled around us. Dinosaur Jr. or the first Sun City Girls record was on the stereo as antidote, and there were stacks of comix, used pulp SF novels and other pop arcana all around glowing with totemic intensity. We played Go because we were both high on Deleuze and Guattari’s recently translated theory Bible, A Thousand Plateaus, which approved of Go as a rhizomatic, non-hierarchical game. It all felt like something out of a back issue of Doctor Strange, the two of us seated cross-legged on some abstract gaming board, calling forth whatever powers we could. We were both interested in materialist magic, some kind of key that would unlock and transform the universe around us, and one of the places we sought it out was in writing.

Erik has been one of the chief chroniclers of some of the madness of our times, publishing his work in magazines that make up a catalogue of the US hipster avant garde post-1980s: The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Details, Mondo 2000, Wired, The Wire, Gnosis, Hermenaut, Yeti, 21C, Feed, Reality Sandwich, Arthur. Sometimes one of these magazines morphs into the mainstream and an actual paycheck, sometimes one of them sinks without a trace. Either way, except for the web-based Feed and Reality Sandwich, these are some of the last vital gasps of the Gutenberg galaxy, the universe of the printed word whose outer limits Erik has explored, without any security or guarantees.

Erik is known for his writing about gnosis, subject of his acclaimed first book, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. But what is the gnostic situation? A basic definition: you are in a trap and you need to escape! Many of us have lived our whole lives in this strange trap that’s variously given the names of late capitalism, postmodernity or just simply Babylon. What happens to writing and writers in this situation? Greil Marcus wrote that to understand Lester Bangs, you’d have to recognize that the greatest American writer of the 1970s might write nothing but record reviews. To understand Erik and his fascination with weirdness and esoterica of many kinds, you’d have to recognize that just writing record reviews would be way too conservative an approach to actually describing our world today.

Erik has been one of the most enthusiastic advocates of Philip K. Dick’s writing and vision of the future, and like that great master of late twentieth century fiction, Erik has made his way on his own, without academic backing, through the deserts of the real and all the strange encampments lurking there, whether in Nevada, New York, San Francisco or London. Like Dick, Erik is a native Californian, and a passage from a letter from Dick to Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem illuminates something of the method and environment that they share. Lem had previously praised Dick as the only great SF writer around (besides presumably himself!), but sniffed that it was unfortunate that Dick appeared to be so obsessed with such tawdry, disreputable subject matter. Dick responded:

But you see Mr. Lem, there is no culture here in California, only trash. And we who grew up here and live here and write here have nothing else to include as elements in our work; you can see this in ON THE ROAD. I mean it. The West Coast has no tradition, no dignity, no ethics – this is where that monster Richard Nixon grew up. How can one create novels based on this reality which do not contain trash, because the alternative is to go into dreadful fantasies of what it ought to be like; one must work with the trash, pit it against itself, as you so aptly put it in your article. Hence the elements in such books of mine as UBIK. If God manifested Himself to us here He would do so in the form of a spraycan advertised on TV.

Dick died in 1982, but the trash has continued to pile up sky-high. Using the word “trash” sounds condescending — but the point is that in our society, anything of value is thrown out, devalued, abandoned and forgotten. Take Erik’s second book, a magisterial reading of Led Zeppelin’s fourth LP that appeared in the 33 1/3 series of books (OK, I lied, Erik does write about records too). Zoso is a mass-cultural artefact, and the object of a million banalities. What Erik does is draw out a whole esoteric history that informs the record, both in its production and reception, tracking the way that revolutionary energies are both displaced onto but secretly resting in an object of everyday life. What distinguishes Erik’s work from the mass of pop cultural meditation and academic cultural studies that have blossomed since the 1980s is his affirmation of religious or spiritual energies as valid aspects of this everyday world. But it’s a critical spirituality that Erik affirms, equally skeptical of postmodern irony, dogmatic materialism and born again fervor, but at the same time open to the world as he finds it.

There is a tradition here that Erik is a part of, a tradition of religious dissent, independent, non-conformist, often hedonistic in orientation. Its most recent form is the great revelations of the 1960s, whose echoes and ripples were still everywhere in Erik’s 1970s SoCal childhood. From there, we go back to the older, weirder America, the DIY transcendentalists and Great Awakeners who persist in the margins and rooming-houses of the imagination, back to the vast history of vanquished seekers, the Ranters and other heretics of the English Revolution who crossed the Atlantic, the Albigensians and Anabaptists and other dissenters from Christian orthodoxy that haunt European history, right back to the gnostic sects of the Biblical era, trying to square Jesus with Epicurus and the Upanishads, and beyond that to the murky characters lurking at the very beginning of what is called history, who refused to get down with the priests of the Rig Veda or the founders of the state of Uruk. And that’s just in the Western lineage, which is only one small part of the history of what has gone on on this planet. A lot of unfinished business … which is why it persists and returns today.

Second definition of the gnostic situation: a flash of illumination that allows you to escape. But how do you do that? Erik’s interests are a catalog of the spaces and practices by which contemporary people have tried to trigger that flash that allows escape. They include: yoga, Buddhism, taoism and other Asian religious traditions; hermeticism, Neopaganism and other Western esoteric traditions; psychedelics, of both the old (LSD, shrooms) and new (DMT and MDMA) diaspora; theory, notably of the Deleuze and Guattari lineage, but including skirmishes with Zizek and anarcho-mystic Hakim Bey; pop and subcultural artefacts including zines, comix, fandoms; festival/party/pilgrimage scenes such as The Rainbow Gathering, the global outlaw rave scene that originated in Goa, and Burning Man, of which he is the most celebrated chronicler; the personal computer and the internet, and the proliferation of cultural forms around them including MUDs and MOOs; most of the interesting music scenes of the last twenty years from the Mekons’ post-punk, through the 90s alt diaspora, Goa trance and other electronic sounds, to the freak folk scene and enduring tricksters such as the Sun City Girls.

Did anybody actually escape through any of these means and forms? That’s a secret — you have to find out for yourself! But what makes Erik a writer in the heroic sense of the word is his ability to get on the bus and take the ride without a whole lot of delusions or Romanticism about achieved utopias. In fact, the problem of “failed transcendence” is not high on Erik’s list of priorities, and he can put up with all manner of goofy shtick if the result is a generous and progressive social situation – as in Burning Man for example. There’s a whole vocabulary of enjoyment that comes with this: “fun” of course, but also the “juicy”, the “tasty” and the “yummy” — moments where righteous vision is attained, usually through some kind of protocol or practice.

Erik’s work has an ambiguous relationship to the world of academia. A graduate of Yale during the heyday of literary theory, he gravitated instead towards a tai chi teacher he would visit after his Hegel and Nietzsche seminar who said to him: “PhDs don’t impress me, people who’ve confronted the void impress me!” The category of “the impressive” is a puzzling one to me — after all, there is no one to impress but the Gods in the zones where anything that really matters happens — but it’s an important one in Erik’s lexicon too, both in terms of what he’s attracted to and his own stance. I take it to refer to the importance of the gift economy to him, the generosity of attainment which serves as a vehicle of friendship, prestige and community. It recognizes the authority of practice over theory, event over system, action over word — with the twist that, as will all great writers, he still is drawn to write about this stuff!

Erik moved back to California in 1995 and has become a cultural archeologist of the region, uncovering scenes and characters including the alternative film and visual arts worlds of LA and San Francisco, figures like Wallace Berman and Jordan Belson, and the locations and histories described in his third book, The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape. Perhaps Erik’s solution to the gnostic dilemna–which as scholars such as Hans Jonas have noted, is one of existential homelessness–is to explore the groundless ground of what is called home, which for him means the state of California, and the various attempts to found intentional communities there, and to attain realization.

The title of this introduction is taken from a song on Sonic Youth’s remarkable record Daydream Nation, which came out around the time that I first met Erik. This record, which both of us love or have loved, is always associated in my mind with Erik. The sense on that record, of urgency struggling to make itself known in the face of an overwhelmingly deep, sluggish trance, a trance which the band is all too familiar with, reminds me of Erik’s work, as do the enormous surges of euphoric clarity, which do break through that trance, again and again.

April 2009.

Sound Commitments: Avant-garde Music and the Sixties: A Review

A review for the journal of improvised and experimental music, Signal to Noise. Originally published in their Summer 2009 issue. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

Sound Commitments: Avant-garde Music and the Sixties, edited by Robert Adlington (Oxford UP, 2009, $29.95 PBK).

Flow, Gesture, and Spaces in Free Jazz: Towards a Theory of Collaboration, Guerino Mazzola and Paul B. Cherlin (Springer, 2009, $69.95 HBK).

Recent years have seen a growing revaluation of the 1960s, both in the sphere of political theory where philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou have attempted to reclaim and rethink the revolutionary consciousness of that period, and in the arts, where excavation of the work of radical artists in the visual arts, film, literature and music continues. The “excesses” of the sixties were disavowed by many in the conservative period that began in the 1980s as a moral, political and artistic failure, but in the wake of the global collapse of financial markets and the neo-liberal ideology of globalization, there is a real urgency in looking at the paths not taken, in order to be able to illuminate possible futures.

Sound Commitments seeks to explore the avant garde in music from the point of view of social, aesthetic and political theory, with a renewed interest in the music and musicians whose work participated in the broader political movements that strove for a revolutionary change in global society. In particular, as the intro says, the book asks “how could avant-garde musicians make a meaningful contribution to social change if their music remained the preserve of a tiny initiated clique?” This is an important question, and the book explores, in a variety of situations, what happened when musicians committed to a tradition of aesthetic experimentation growing out of the twentieth century avant garde, stretching back from Satie or Schoenberg through Cage and Stockhausen, confronted radical mass political movements, who demanded a music that spoke to the people. In some sense, the avant-garde never recovered from this confrontation, despite numerous heroic individual efforts, retreating instead into populist and ultimately commodified forms or a defiant marginality that preserved aesthetic dignity at the price of real engagement with the masses, if that word makes any sense today.

Those moments of encounter include: minimalist fiddler/philosopher Henry Flynt’s affiliation with the communist Workers World Party in the mid-1960s and his famous demonstrations against Stockhausen in New York; the work of composer/improv collective Musica Electronica Viva in Rome in the late 1960s, bringing experimental music to prisons and various public spaces; a concert in Amsterdam in 1968 held by various young Dutch composers in solidarity with the events of May in France, including Misha Mengelberg; the presentation of Steve Reich’s tape collage “Come Out!” at a concert in solidarity with the Harlem Six, a group of African-Americans wrongly arrested in a riot in New York; Luc Ferrari’s tenure as director of a community art center in France in the late 1960s, and his tape work Presque Rien; the ONCE group festivals organized in Ann Arbor including Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma; the performances of Japanese avant garde musicians at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo. The book also includes a dryly humorous account of the difficulties faced by the US state department in sending avant garde composers out as cultural ambassadors to various countries, at a moment when the decidedly For Export category high cultural category of the Classical seemed to dissolve.

Unfortunately, the book, which has its origins in an academic conference, doesn’t rise to being more than the sum of its parts. The material is always interesting, and the authors are adept at pointing to what the crisis of the avant garde consisted of, but there’s little sense of how the crisis, which is one that we still inhabit, might be resolved, or even what the trajectory of many of the musicians was, beyond the limits of “the long 1960s”. With the exception of Sumanth Gopinath’s excellent musicological/political reading of Reich’s “Come Out!” the writing is not theoretical or “avant garde” enough and feels distant, if respectful. And of course, there’s plenty that doesn’t get talked about: the “Third World” avant-gardes, in particular in North Africa and South America; the relation between the avant-gardes and rock’n’roll, which saw former classically trained musician/composers from Darmstadt and similar locales forming and joining rock bands at the end of the decade; the commune scenes around the globe and the folk/avant/rock hybrids that they often produced; drugs, spirituality and sexuality as revolutionary practices co-emergent with avant garde music.

One could draw a number of conclusions from the book. That the shift from anarchist or New Left political positions in the late 1960s towards Maoist and other far left positions often forced musicians and composers back into reactionary musical forms with little pay off in terms of engaging the people. On the positive side, it also knocked a few more nails into the coffin of the Western classical tradition, for those who refused to buckle under often ended up making experimental rock rather than “avant garde music”. But rock, along with jazz and contemporary classical retreated over a period of decades, willingly or not, into being “just music”, presented in reified forms at the endless experimental music festivals which so many European states sponsor today. At the same time, the negotiation with “the audience”, albeit fragmented into a thousand micro-audiences, continued and continues today. The anarchist ethos of the mid-1960s became punk in the 1970s, with DIY working as a compromise between autonomy and entrepreneurship, and situationism functioning as a rationale for seeking mass market success, but also delivering the occasional shock right into the heart of the society of the spectacle. It is hard to see today how music could in itself start a revolution (except as a disingenuous marketing ploy aimed at jaded consumer palates), yet as Sound Commitments repeatedly points out, this is exactly what many musicians believed in the 1960s, and they acted on it. And the invitation remains open to try it again, differently …

Mazzola and Cherlin’s Flow, Gesture and Spaces in Free Jazz takes a different approach to the avant garde, proposing “geometric theories of gestures and distributed identities, also known as swarm intelligence.” The book is a real mess, written in poor English, packed with eccentric digressions, unexplained formulas, and a dubious politics that too quickly tries to resituate free jazz away from its African American origins as a part of German romanticism! Having said that, there are some original ideas here too. Mazzola is a trained mathematician and physicist, as well as a jazz musician, and author of a 1300 page treatise called The Topos of Music, that proposes to understand music through the complex geometric science of topology. It all comes down to the problem of how you represent something that appears to be unrepresentable — beyond orthodox musical notation, beyond conventional linguistic description, and even mathematical formulas. At its most profound, it is an attempt to think what music is — notably a music, namely free jazz, that refuses all the structures that Western art music is built around, while possessing a high degree of mastery, purpose and value. What Mazzola and Cherlin (a colleague at the University of Minnesota) come up with is a three part theory that considers how the collaborations and improvisations of free jazz work, through creating new kinds of spaces, through the concept of the gesture, which is carefully distinguished from a rule, using the work of French philosopher Gilles Chatelet, and through a theory of flow. Despite the poor prose, there is something admirable about Mazzola and Cherlin’s tenacity in keeping true to what their own vision of what free jazz is about, in spite of the poverty of official languages in tracking it.

Mazzola and Cherlin would benefit from reading the writers in Sound Commitments, and probably vice versa. By stripping music of its sociality, beyond the immediate circle of those who collaborate in making it, they risk reducing music to a form of computer programming, in spite of their best intentions. Space, flow and gesture are all historically contingent, as is free jazz — it makes a difference who is listening, where and when and there can be no abstract scientific theory of what makes “good jazz” or “successful improvisation”. The audience participates in the creation of meaning and value too, often despite itself. The problem is pointed to in Sound Commitments — the relation of the music to actual listeners is complicated, and the question of idiomatic forms of improvisation like flamenco or raga or other ethnic musics, which Derek Bailey pointed to in his own writing about improvisation, looms over any notion of the avant garde today. What if “free jazz” meant jazz in a free society? On the other hand, the writers in Sound Commitments could benefit from Mazzola and Cherlin’s commitment to the science and philosophy of sound, and consider the ways in which revolutionary music must be more than a set of radical social propositions, and must at some level be an intervention in the materiality of sound also.