Monthly Archives: September 2008

There is, through the window, a slender pine,
A shadow shape against a shadowed night,
A charcoal wick aflame with a hazed moon,
Pallid, flickering, and all adrift
Of the world, astride the pine’s upstretched peak,
The silhouetted ache of earth for sky.

The Senior High class I teach at my church met at our local coffee shop this morning, and we got on the topic of found fruit, which is a term that is often applied to the fruit that can be found and harvested for free in urban areas.  For example, I have for years been harvesting apples and pears from behind one of the city community centres where there had been an orchard when the building was still a nurses’ residence for the local hospital.  I also pick serviceberries and elderberries from various housing developments around the city, and there are places where I can also find wild grapes, red currants, rose hips, and raspberries.  Then there are the various neighbours who have planted fruit trees but do not harvest them and let me pick grapes and cherries and whatever else.  All this saves me a not inconsiderable amount of money, and it also lets me use what already grows around me and would otherwise go to waste.

Picking found fruit in this way seems very natural to me.  My parents often took my brothers and me to collect windfall apples from the side of rural roads, apples that could not be eaten but were great for making applesauce.  We also picked the berries that grew in the housing developments where we lived over the years.  When I was first married, I discovered and began picking the wild grapes that grew near our apartment, and I was eventually joined by several of the other residents for the yearly harvest. Though I have moved from these places, I still return to them to gather fruit each year, and I am taking cuttings from some of these plants for my own garden.

Though this behaviour seems very normal to me, however, my students were clearly a little disconcerted with the idea.  They wanted to know whether I had to pay people, which I never do, or get their permission, which I always do unless the fruit is on public land.  They also wanted to know whether this kind of fruit might be more likely to carry bugs or diseases.  The whole thing seemed a little inapropriate to them, something like sneaking into a movie theatre or hacking a computer.  It might be possible, they seemed to imply, but surely there was something about it that was immoral if not actually illegal.

This response, now that I think about it, was a predictable one given our culture’s ideas about property.  We have so internalized the notion that everything is and should be owned and that everything does and should cost something, that we are immediately wary when something appears to be unowned and available to be used freely.  I have seen very similar responses to open source software, for example, or even to the neighbourly gesture to shovel a driveway.  We assume that these things can only be free to hide another kind of cost.  We assume that everything must have an owner, and that what is owned by one person would surely not be freely given to another except as a kind of advertisement or loss leader.  What is freely given or freely found, we believe, will be of worse quality and will obligate us in other ways.  We worry that the real owner of these things will appear and demand that we pay for them in one way or another.

We feel this way, unfortunately, because it is too often the case that what is free does indeed come at a hidden cost, but this should make it all the more necessary that we actively use those few things that are in fact freely found and freely given.  To pick and use found fruit, or to use open source software, or to lend tools freely between neighbours, these become ways, not only to save money, but to maintain economies that do not circulate around money at all, but around the local community and the local environment.  They become ways to value things apart from the dollar value that might be attached to them.  They become ways to understand value differently, to reevaluate, to value more highly what is given and discovered without any value at all.

I often find that the web moves to quickly for me.  I come across an interesting post or article, something that warrants serious reflection, something to which I would like to respond, but by the time I have formulated my thoughts on the subject, the post is days or weeks old, and the discussion has long since shifted to other things.  I had this experience a few weeks ago when I read James Shelley’s post on his “bulldozed brain“, or on how new media is saturating him with so much information about people that he no longer has time to relate to these people in person.  I thought it was a compelling article at the time, but I am only just now finding the words to respond to it.

The issue that James raises is one that very much concerns me, and I have spent a good deal of the last few weeks reflecting on it, formulating the question, as I often find myself doing, in terms of the books that I am reading, in this case, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life.  I am not sure that I have arrived at anything coherent, but there are a few ideas that I think might be helpful in understanding how the web mediates social relationships.

Using Debord’s terminology, I would suggest that the web, especially with the kind of applications that have been labelled as web 2.0, where users create content for one another, has dramatically shifted how spectacle becomes produced in our society.  Spectacle has until recently been the language spoken by the dominant modes of production in order to mediate social relationships in such a way as to create people as consumers.  Now spectacle is increasingly becoming the language that consumers speak to one another as they produce content for one another.  While practices of consumption are and always have been productive of something, the web permits consumers to produce for one another to an unprecedented extent. Consumers have essentially become producers of their own spectacle at precisely the same moment that they are consumers it, though they always do so within limits imposed by the dominant modes of production.  They produce themselves and their relationships as spectacles for others to consume.

This shift in how spectacle is produced has several effects.  First, it ties the language and the production of spectacle much more closely to the social relationships that spectacle mediates, so that the two are now almost indistinguishable.  Traditional media like television and print presented spectacle in ways that appeared fairly distinct from the activity of social relation.  Even if people do gather socially around these media, and even if they provide the subject of much social interaction, there is no illusion that people actually relate through them.  With web media, however, especially with many social media sites, but even with less direct means like blogs and emails, there is the illusion that relationships are being actually conducted through them.  Thus, rather than having spectacle mediate social relation as an effect of its consumption, spectacle now mediates relationship as an integral part of its production as well.

This is what creates the compulsion that James describes, the compulsion to consume more of the web, because there is the illusion that this activity is in fact relational. The relationship, however, is not between me and my friends, but between me and the spectacle that my friends have created themselves to be, a spectacle that functions precisely like a tabloid, only with the added personal interest that comes with actually knowing the celebrities involved.  I learn much useless information about these celebrity friends, these friends who are spectacles of themselves, but I come to know them very little.  Because spectacle appears on the web as indistinguishable from the relationships that it mediates, the consumption and production of this spectacle takes on a significance that other spectacle lacks, and people feel a compulsion to consume and produce it for one another.

The shift in how spectacle is produced also has the effect of extending exponentially the saturation of society by spectacle.  While the language of spectacle was mostly the domain of the producer, the necessity to profit from spectacle always placed limitations on how completely this language could be spoken.  There was only so much television and so much radio and so much live entertainment that could be made profitable, and there remained large, though certainly diminishing, portions of social interaction that escaped the direct mediation of spectacle.  As soon as consumers begin to produce their own spectacle, however, the necessity of making a profit no longer limits this production, or limits it in only very indirect ways.  In fact, the only effective limits for this kind of production become the  constantly expanding limitations of the technologies themselves.  Users of web media, therefore, are saturated with spectacle to a much greater degree than users of traditional media, particularly as the web becomes increasingly portable via cellphones and and other handheld technologies.  There are no longer any spaces that remain absolutely beyond the reach of media spectacle, and there remain very few that are practically beyond this reach.  It is now possible to conduct our relationships in entirely mediated ways, entirely through the mediation of the spectacle.  Indeed, the sheer volume and reach of spectacle produced through the web compells users in this very direction.

This, then, is the effect that James describes in his post, where the web produces far more information about people than he can possibly assimilate.  As opposed to traditional media, which could only produce so much spectacle and tailor it to our interests only so closely, the web permits us to produce immense amounts of current information that is tailored just for us and that is at least superficially connected with people to whom we feel some sort of obligation.  What is more, as soon as I begin to respond to this information, I begin creating it for others also, and I only increase the immensity of the social spectacle available to myself and to others.

Now, this shift in the production of spectacle to the consumer of spectacle is not necessarily bad.  It does, in effect, within very set limitations, permit the consumer to take the role of the producer.  I use the word ‘role’ here very specifically, because the consumer never has real control over how this production takes place, but there is nevertheless an opportunity here, I believe, for people to produce in ways that were unforeseen and are even resistant to the applications that they use.  There is the possibility, not to change society, or to change the mode of production, or to change the web, but to operate within these structures in ways that are tactically resistant to them, in ways that change only ourselves and perhaps those who we influence directly.

Shifting now to the terminology of Michel de Certeau, whose book I have not yet finished, and whose ideas I therefore reference with a certain amount of hesitation, I would say that the web, by permitting the consumer to take the role of the producer in even limited ways, becomes an interesting tactical space.  De Certeau recognizes, what is true, that all practices of consumption are productive of something, and he is interested in the tactics that consumers use in order to produce effects that are unintended and by producers and even resistant to them.  It seems to me that, if this is true of a system in which consumers have little access to the role of the producer, it becomes much more true in a system where consumers also play the role of producers, even in limited ways.  Though this new role may only serve to tie consumers more tightly to the spectacle that defines them as consumers in the first place, it may offer more opportunity for the kind of tactics that de Certeau is describing.

For me, the logic of this move would look something like this:

1.  The web permits the saturation of society and the mediation of social relationship by spectacle to a degree that was completely unattainable through traditional media, simply because it employs consumers themselves to produce their own spectacle.

2.  The web permits tactical interventions by consumers to a degree that was completely unattainable through traditional media, simply because it allows the consumer to play the role of producer within certain limitations.

3.  Therefore, we must approach the web tactically, in order that its spectacular effect might be exposed, and in order that its resistant opportunities be exploited.

4.  Therefore, we must also develop and disseminate tactics that are useful to this end, employing them here and there, now and again, where they might do most good, in the spaces that are opened by the kinds of freedom that the web permits to consumers as producers, to you and I.

This is, I believe, the challenge to all of us who would do the web justice and who would use it to do justly.

A lie is never a lie if it makes the story better, if it makes the story more what it already is, if it makes the story truer to itself.  To insist that a story be slavishly consistent with reality, even and especially when the story pretends to be a true story, is most often to insist that it be a bad story, that it be untrue to itself precisely as a story. A story, in every case, is already a misrepresentation and a falsification, omitting and translating and transforming and recreating.  This does not make the story a lie.  It makes the story a story.  In the story, a lie is a lie, not when it is inconsistent with reality, but only when it is inconsistent with the story, when it does not reflect the nature and the purpose of the story.  There is no other lie, not to the story, and there is nothing that is not a story.

This past Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc was an interesting one, though not for the reasons I expected.  I had intended to make tomato soup, since last Saturday was tomato sauce day, and I expected to have a fair number of tomatoes remaining.  In the event, however, we used all the tomatoes but had perhaps a quarter of a bushel of red peppers left, so I made roasted red pepper soup instead, a recipe so good that I will keep it and make it again when I have a chance.

I had planned to screen Seeing is Believing by Peter Wintonick and Katerina Cizek, and I will likely do so next month instead, but we had only a very few people come, and the consensus was that we wanted something a little different, a little less intense.  So, we had a look at my collection and decided to watch Touch the Sound by Thomas Riedelshiemer, a film that explores the music of Evelyn Glennie, a percussionist who is also deaf.  What I saw of it, between putting children to bed, was quite interesting, and everyone seemed to enjoy it very much.

Though I usually try to have some discussion after the film, people mostly dissipated fairly quickly, helping with the dishes or going their way, and I found myself on the porch instead, smoking my pipe with my brother and conversing about music and sports and the preserves that he was stealing from me in order to supplement the diet of a starving artist.  We talked very little about the film, but our conversation was good and fitting with the rest of the evening: not what I expected, but good in any case.

Dave Humphrey likes to say that we are the festival, making reference to an idea from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method.  He means by this that the festival only occurs in the way that it does, only occurs at all, in fact, because we go to it, participate in it, and, in short, make it what it is.  I had something of that feeling on Saturday night, that those who attended made it what it was, which was something quite different than I had expected.  The event became what it was quite apart from anything I had planned, and what it became was good in its own right.  It was good because those who came made it what they needed it to be.

A few months ago, during my failed attempt to use this space to manage online media, I posted very briefly a link to the manifesto of an organization called Ars Industrialis, which was formed several years ago by Bernard Steigler, George Collins, Marc Crepon, Catherine Perret, Carloine Steigler, and some others. The manifesto essentially argues that technologies of knowledge, communication, and information, which it describes as technologies of spirit, are becoming centralized and subjected to market forces in ways that threaten the life of the mind. It maintains, however, that these technologies also have the potential to inaugurate a new era of the life of the mind.

I concur with the manifesto in several respects:

1. That the life of the mind is substantially threatened by the subjection of technologies of spirit to the requirements of the market;

2. That practices of technologies of spirit need to be developed that will actively resist the subjection of these technologies to the market; and

3. That these practices, to the extent that they are successful, hold the potential to invigorate and vitalize the life of the mind.

However, I am suspicious of the manifesto in several respects also:

1. That it idealizes a past epoch and a possible future epoch of the mind in simple opposition to a current less ideal epoch;

2. That it represents resistant practices of technologies of spirit simplistically as capable of neutralizing chaos and creating the conditions for a peaceful future; and

3. That it understands the intervention of new practises of technologies of spirit primarily in terms of stimulating desire, formulating these terms according to a Freudian terminology that is, in my opinion, both limited and limiting.

Beyond these concerns, the most central problem of the Ars Industrialis project is, however, that it remains content to write about new technologies rather than through them. Its proposed activities include traditional academic media almost exclusively: discussions, symposiums, work-groups, press, journals, books, studies, and experiments. Only once does the manifesto mention the actual use of new technologies, when it discusses publication on the internet, but it limits the scope of this kind of publication to the organization’s own website. At no other point does the possibility of conducting academic work through new technologies of spirit even arise, not in the entire manifesto. At all other times, new technologies of spirit remain objects for study only, this despite the assertion that these technologies hold the potential to usher in a new epoch of the mind.

This refusal of a particular academic community to conduct its work through the new technologies of spirit is symptomatic, I think, of the broader academic community’s general failure to make use of the technologies available to it in any real way, particularly in the kind of resistant and critical ways that are required if these technologies are not to become completely dominated by the influence of the market. It is necessary that there be a concerted and sustained effort from those who are concerned with the life of the mind to write and think and work in critical ways through the new technologies of spirit themselves. This is necessary, not only because it is the only way that the voice of the academy will regain a role of relevance to society more broadly, but also because this kind of critical intervention should be the primary role of the academic in every society in every era, no less now than ever.

Midway through canning tomato sauce yesterday, my children began to lose patience.  This is understandable.  Tomato sauce day is a long, hard day.  So we turned off the pots, gathered ourselves, and set off for the park.  We picked up a neighbourhood friend along the way, a girl of five years old, one of the few children I have met who is capable of matching my eldest for energy.  Our time in the park was a good respite for everyone concerned, and we left far more agreeably than we had come.

On the way home, I discovered a small shrub growing in a garden along the street.  It had leaves reminiscent of a rosebush and small, yellow fruit that looked much like a miniature apple or pear.  As I was trying to determine, with my rudimentary gardening knowledge, what exactly this plant was, our young friend decided to pick one of the fruit and bite it.  We stopped her before she swallowed anything, and there are very few fruit that will do any great damage in small quantities, but I thought it might be best if I could identify it as quickly as possible.  I could hear the owner of the house behind the back fence, so I leaned over and asked if she knew what species the plant was.  She had no idea that the little bush even grew fruit.  All she could tell me was that it had pretty flowers in the spring, which was rather less than helpful.

By the time we reached our young friend’s house, she was still showing no ill effects, and her parents informed us that she had eaten almost every berry in the area once already in any case, but I was still interested to know what plant we had discovered.  A brief internet search revealed what many other people probably would have known from the beginning, that it was a flowering quince, or a chaenomeles japonica, which is not only harmless but often used in jams and jellies.  The flowers, which range from white through pink to red, are quite attractive, and I have decided to plant a few in my garden.

What intrigues me though, is that none of the books or the sites that I have read, and I have read more than a few, ever listed flowering quince among the edible plants that could be grown in our climate.  Of course, none of them listed may apples or paw paw trees either, and I am curious about why these lists are so limited.  Many even omit common edible berries like saskatoon berries and elderberries.  Is this simply because they are not a viable commercial crop?  If so, how did the commercial viability of a food crop come to be equivalent with its edibility, where lists of edible plants include only the small fraction of edibles that are grown on a commercial scale?

These questions interest me because I wonder whether this is another way in which gardening can become a guerilla activity.  I have already mentioned my one friend who plants flower gardens in unattractive public spaces, and my other friend who rescues interesting local specimens from areas that are about to be developed.  Various others, including myelf to some extent, do what might be called guerilla gardening by growing only those plants that are local or those that are edible.  Many of us, though I have had some difficult decisions in this regard, have made a similarly guerilla decision to garden organically.  Might there also be a necessity for an intervention with respect to the kinds of edible plants that are grown, not just in terms of growing noncommercial varietals of commonly grown commercial crops, which is certainly necessary, but in terms of growing plants that are not viable commercially at all?  Is there a need for the home garden to develop these plants precisely because commercial gardens will not?  Is this a place where home gardens might perform a useful intervention?

I am not sure to what degree these questions are significant, but I am discovering that much of what commercial agriculture has passed over is good and useful and viable in the home garden, and I will make it a part of my gardening practise to include these plants whenever I find them.  It may not ever be very effective as activism, but, if nothing else, it will make my own cooking and my own table more varied and more interesting, and this is no small thing in my estimation.

I picked elderberries at Dave Humphrey’s place yesterday.  My eldest son came with me and picked a few berries as well before the mosquitoes became too much for him. After Dave was gracious enough to walk him back to the house, I spent an hour or so alone in the woods, following the elderberry bushes as they followed the stream.  Along with the berries, I managed to find a wild turkey feather and two nests for my son’s eclectic and ever-expanding nature collection.  The sun was lowering but not yet setting, and I finished just as it was casting through the big maple beside the lake.  It was the first evening that I could smell autumn.

Last night and much of today I spent picking the berries from the stems, a process so tedious that it is virtually impossible to buy elderberries commercially, despite how wonderful they taste.  Customers would simply never pay the real cost of pulling all those little berries from the stems with the gentleness required to keep the berries from bursting and the stems from coming with the berries.  I had something like half a bushel to pick, a matter of almost ten hours. This kind of labour can only be justified by a pie, or, to be more precise, by several pies and a substantial batch of jelly.

Tomorrow I will make jelly, bake pies, and fill the house with elderberryness.  It will hold the aroma of a passing summer and a ripening fall, the scattered light of a descending sun through a solitary and giant maple, and the stained fingers of ten hours of picking berries from stems.  There will never have been anything exactly like it before in the history of the world, and there will never be anything exactly like it until the end of time.  It will be entirely and irrevocably irreplaceable.

I sometimes have a moment when I first pick up a book, maybe just after I have heard someone describe it, maybe just after I have read the back cover, maybe just after I have scanned the first few pages of the introduction, and I have the sensation, clear and terrifying, that it will change me. I find myself looking at the thing in my hand, the lump of ink and glue and paper, horrified and elated, transfixed by the possibility that it might overturn me, that it might transform how I think or live. Jean Luc Marion’s God Without Being caused this in me. So too did Ivan Illich’s Rivers North of the Future. In a different way, a way I cannot quite qualify, so did George MacDonald’s Lilith. Of course, these sensations do not always prove true.  In this moment, however, with Michel de Certeau’s The Practise of Everyday Life beside me, I do not think that I will be disappointed. I feel an expectancy, an assurance that it holds for me a transformation. I take it up with a certain joy and a certain terror.

I promised some months ago that I would write a series of posts on Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as I reread it and took notes from it, but I have always seemed to have more pressing topics at hand, and I find myself having finished my second reading of the book without having posted about it at all. I am not entirely without consideration for those who may be reading this, so I will not now try to write in one post all the things that I should have written in several, but I will follow one series of ideas that impressed me with their relevance to the internet as a means of social interaction.

Debord argues that the dominant mode of production speaks a language of spectacle that comes to mediate social relationships, transforming the prevailing mode of social life so that it appears as spectacle itself and seems to justify the language, the conditions, the aims, and the products of the existing system. The society of the spectacle is thus a society where social life is mediated in such a way that it can be produced and consumed as a product, where social life becomes increasingly subject to an economy. The power of spectacle over the individual, therefore, is a function of the individual’s acceptance of the economization of social relationships, which means that resistance to the society of the spectacle will always take the form of a resistance to the economization of social relationships.

This argument, even in the reductive and inadequate way that I have summarized it, bears interestingly on the phenomenon of social media networks and other means of social interaction through the web. These technologies function in precisely the way that Debord describes. They impose themselves between people in order to mediate their relationships with a series of images and spectacles that are designed, explicitly, to reduce the elements of social interaction to forms of data that can be digitized, transferred, measured, economized, and controlled. Rather than having a series of complex and unique relationships, for example, these technologies reduce everyone to friends, to a number on the screen that can be counted and compared with others, to a collection that can be amassed like possessions and counted like currency. Rather than having my own complex identity, I am forced to choose my religion, relationship status, and everything else from options limited by drop-down menus. My life, the lives of my friends, and the relationships that we have between us become reduced to a spectacle, to a product for our consumption. Rather than living our social relationships, we consume them for our amusement, in the sense of amusement that I defined some time ago.

I do not mean to imply that that all social relationship conducted through these technologies is necessarily produced and and consumed as spectacle in support of the dominant modes of production, but I do mean to imply that this is indeed very often the function of these technologies when they are used uncritically. It is necessary, therefore, that we be actively looking for ways to use these technologies against themselves and to conduct ourselves through them in ways that contest their tendency to reduce social interaction to measurable data, to economy, to spectacle, to consumption. We need to approach these technologies, not in order to use them, but in order to misuse them, in order to abuse them, so that we can begin to resist their function as spectacle as far we are able.

This abuse and misuse would, of course, look different from person to person and from situation to situation, but it will be possible to develop, refine, annd share techniques for this kind of intervention, not just with web technologies, but with any of the technologies that have come to mediate human relationship.  In my own use of the web, for example, I habitually decline to use drop-down menus or, when I must, I select options that are clearly untrue of me.  I complete forms in ways for which they were not intended.  I use softare to block advertizements.  I write and read the web at length.  I try to do both critically.  I avoid the viral.  I revel in the idiosyncratic.  I try to use means of communication that permit greater flexibility and choice. None of these choices makes much of a difference to the web itself, but they do make a differance in the virtual place that I create for myself from the web.  They allow me to limit the mediating influence that these technologies might have on the relations that I conduct through the web.  I hope they are a place to start.