Monthly Archives: November 2009

I read an interview with Werner Herzog in the Globe and Mail this morning.  I love Herzog, not just his films, of which I have seen too few, but his persona as a director, and the interview provides some fabulous examples of this persona at work.  For example, how many Hollywood directors are capable of an observation this articulate and this profound:  “I see a rigorous correlation between the explosion of instruments of communication, cellphones, the Internet, virtual reality, and the amount of human solitude, existential solitude. I can’t fully explain it, I can only observe it. More people are withdrawn, and they are incapable of real dialogue. The 21st-century will be the century of solitude.”  If more of our directors were capable of this kind of thoughtful reflection, if more of them were capable of articulating themselves half so well, perhaps we would have more films worth watching.

I had the opportunity to appear on CFRU‘s Family Matters show this morning, talking about fathers who stay at home and who homeschool their children.  Though both of my kids are preschoolers, which probably disqualifies me as a homeschooler in a technical sense, there are few enough homeschooling fathers that just my interest in the idea qualified me to appear on the show.  I am rarely as satisfied with what I say as I am with what I write, and this was the case again this morning, but it was an interesting experience for me, and I do not think that my comments misrepresent me.

Those who are interested in hearing the audio can find it in CFRU’s  Program Archive, but the site does not provide links to individual programs, so you will need to select “Sunday: 2009-11-21” from the initial list and then “8:00:00 – Family Matters” on the list of the day’s programs.

Since I posted on the work of writing in the age of digital replication, I have begun, finally, to read Lev Manovich‘s The Language of New Media, part of which relates to what I was addressing in that post.   My argument was essentially that a digital copy of a digital object “is always entirely identical to its original and to every other copy,” but Manovich proposes, among his several principles of new media, a principle of variability, which states that “a new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite variations.”

What Manovich means by this is that the same digital object can be, and often is, altered and modified according to the specifications of each user, so that each user has, at least in potential, access to many variations of the same digital object.  For example, the digital object of this post will be used to produce many variant digital objects by different users.  Some will read it through one or another feed reader.  Some will read it through this site itself.  Some will see it first in a search engine’s display.  These people will be using various browsers, various graphics drivers, and various operating systems.  All of these things will manipulate the original digital object and create a variation of it for the end users.

Now, Manovich’s principle and my own are not mutually exclusive, but they do emphasize two apparently opposing characteristics of the digital object, and they do raise the question of how exactly digital objects are related to the copies and the variations that are made from them.  In this respect, I would suggest that it is necessary to refine the idea of the copy as such, whether it is being used to describe digital objects or physical ones, and I would argue that every copy is distinct from its source object both in space and in time.  Whatever continuity there may be in the content of the object, in the words or the code or the images that it bears, it is always temporally and spatially discontinuous from every other copy.  Whether I am printing a new edition of a book or copying a file for a friend, the copy is always discontinuous from its original.

This distinction may seem obvious, but it is necessary to insist on it in order to realize the difference between how digital objects relate to their copies as opposed to how physical objects do so.  When I take a physical object, I can mark it, individualize it, make it more unique.  When I do so, I create an object that is new, in a very real sense, but one that is not temporally and spatially discontinuous with the one that it replaced.  When I add notes in its margins, or spill coffee on it, or put a dedication on its flyleaf, or bend the corners of its pages to mark my place, I make that object different from the object that it was, but this object is not discontinuous in time and space from the previous object.  This is what allows the user to fetishize the physical object, what makes it available to the user as an object of nostalgia or obsession. It is a new and unique object, but it is physically and historically continuous with the object of the user’s memory.  It takes a place in history.  It is, in fact, entirely irreplaceable.

When I make changes to a digital object, however, these changes do not modify an object that remains continuous with the one that was changed.  Instead, they always create an entirely new digital object.  There is never any way for the digital object to be changed except to be created as entirely new.  It can only be the source for a new object that is in every case entirely discontinuous spatially and temporally from the one that preceded it, and this new object can only be identical with the source object or not.  It has no other way to appear.  There will never be the digital equivalent of coffee stains or bent corners, because any such interventions become embodied in the new object itself.  Even if it replaces the object that preceded it, it is a new and discontinuous object.  Even if it maintains a history of the changes that have been made to it, it is a new and discontinuous object.

It is precisely because digital objects function in this way that they can be made identical, producing copies that are able to replace their originals in every respect.  One copy is a good as another.  So long as they are copies, any one will do.  This is why, while it is still possible to fetishize the function and the history of a digital object, it is never possible to fetishize one copy of this digital object over another.  It is possible for me to have nostalgia for a digital song or computer program, but one copy of these objects will always be as good to me as another, because they will always be entirely interchangeable.  They will never have dog ears or creases or stains that make them identifiably mine and identifiably a part of my history.  They will always remain invisible to my memory and to my history and to my nostalgia.

What Manovich’s principle of variability recognizes, therefore, is the ability of a particular digital object to be manipulated endlessly, but what it fails to recognize is that these manipulations are not variations of the original digital object at all, but entirely new digital objects in themselves.  Though they have used the original object as a source, they are no longer continuous with it spatially or temporally.  In other words, exactly counter to what I quoted from Manovich in my opening paragraph, a new media object is indeed fixed once and for all, however many further objects might use it as a source.  It cannot, as Manovich claims, exist in potentially infinite variations.  It can only be a source for a potentially infinite set of new objects.  While a physical object might potentially exist in many ways as it becomes subject to the alterations of time and space, this is precisely the thing that the digital object can never do.

I have always regarded it as positive that the internet as a medium permits its users a greater degree of active participation than most other media, but during the discussion at this past Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc, I found myself questioning this assumption.  We had just finished watching The U.S. vs. John Lennon, and we were asking why the war in Vietnam had produced such a strong and sustained opposition while the war in Iraq has not generated a similar level of response.  After all, the activists of today have technological advantages that those opposing the Vietnam War did not, and these technologies should theoretically enable them to network and to share information far more easily and far more effectively.  Perhaps, I suggested to the group, the more active experience of using a computer actually dissuades people from becoming active in more practical ways, so that they respond to an issue by signing an online petition, or by writing a blog post, or by sending a mass email, or by contributing to some relief fund, but they never make the transition from internet activism to physical activism.  Their drive to engage in issues becomes satisfied through the monitor and never finds expression beyond it.

To be clear, I am not at all arguing that real activism cannot be accomplished online.  I am merely suggesting that the internet often allows people to engage with issues in ways that provide only the illusion of activism and that it frequently functions to satisfy the need for active involvement in political issues without really addressing these issues beyond the level of the monitor.  Rather than enabling activism, the internet comes to replace it, limiting the ways in which people are willing to be politically active.

The answer to this problem is obviously not to abandon the internet as a tool for activism, because it is simply too effective a means for communicating and networking and organizing and raising awareness.  The answer may, however, involve reimagining how we use the internet and how we promote activism through it, so that we do not content ourselves with online petitions that nobody sees at the expense of actually feeding the hungry, defending the oppressed, and protesting injustice.  I am not sure that I have any specific suggestions as to how this might be accomplished, but I would encourage you, the next time you are confronted by a cause in your online wanderings, to see what it is exactly that you are being asked to do.  Is it the kind of activism that stops at the monitor, or is it the kind that only begins there in order to go much further?

I have written several timed on the poetry of the list, particularly with reference to the writing of Georges Perec, so I enjoyed what Umberto Eco had to say on the subject in an interview with Spiegel, a piece to which Dave Humphrey directed me this afternoon.  You should read the interview yourself, so I will not say very much about it.  I will just list the following ideas that I think deserve some future discussion.

1. “The list is the origin of culture.”

2. “How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists.”

3. “The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it.”

4. “We like Lists because we don’t want to die.”

5. “I like lists for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia. People have their preferences.”

6. “The list is the mark of a highly advanced, cultivated society because a list allows us to question the essential definitions.”

Of course. Eco has much more to say about lists than a list could convey, about education and about culture and about libraries and about many other things, so you should take this list only as an invitation to read further.

I have an environmentalist friend who is constantly espousing the virtue of “doing without”.  His dream is to live in a very small house, built all of natural materials, located on a piece of land that he would be partly cultivating and partly renaturalizing.  Another friend wrote me this past week to tell me that he will now be doing without email in order to spend more time reading and writing in other ways.  A third friend has recently decided to do without alcohol as a way of supporting his brother-in-law who is a recovering alcoholic.    None of these choices is what I would call an ethical absolute, because it is not doing without itself that is the question but the reasons for doing without them and, conversely, the reasons for doing with them.  Email is not essentially unethical, but it may be unethical for me if what I am doing with it is distracting myself from more important things.  Alcohol is not essentially unethical, but it may be unethical for me if it shows disregard for the struggle of a friend.

If I follow this kind of reasoning consistently, however, it often puts me into apparently contradictory positions.  For example, my wife and I have chosen to do without a car, without cable, without a dishwasher, without a clothes dryer, without a power lawnmower, without a cellphone, without air conditioning, without fast food, without commercial pesticides and fertilizers, and without many other things too small or too obvious to mention.  On the other hand, we have also chosen to have a fairly large house in downtown Guelph, and many people see this as contradicting a lifestyle that seems otherwise to be based on the principle of doing without.  In actuality, however, both our choices to do with things and our choices to do without them are based on the same principle, which is the choice to act ethically and purposefully and intentionally, and to let this principle determine whether we will do with something or without it.

In this sense, I choose to do with a large house for many of the same reasons that I choose to do without a car, because I want to live a more convivial, familial, neighbourly life.  I do without a car so that I can walk through my neighbourhood and come to know it, so that I can make this place a home, so that I can make its inhabitants my neighbours.  I choose to do with a house so that I can live with my extended family, so  hat I can live with others who happen to need a place to live, so that I can open my home and my table to those who need a place to sit and eat and be at home.  It is not the with or the without that is important here, but the doing that informs these decisions.  It is not simply about having something or not.  It is about being able to do something with what I have and with what I do not have.

To give a second example, I choose to own many films and books, not because I need them all for myself, though I do use many of them from day to day, but because I want to be able to share them with people, to lend as a way of introducing people to things that I think are worth reading and watching.  I do not simply have them.  I choose to do with them, to do something with them.  The choice to have them or not is secondary to the question of what I want or need to do with them.  The with or the without is  secondary to what I am doing, and this enables me to do with things or without them purposefully, to do with them or without them while avoiding the temptation to take the with or the without as a commandment, whether it be materialism’s commandment that I need  something or it be radicalism’s commandment that I do not.  The with and the without become intentional expressions of what it is that I choose to do.

This is to do with.  This is to do without.  This is to do ethically.  This is to do.

Despite my grandiose aspirations, I only managed to see two of the Guelph Festival of Moving Media films this past weekend:  Burma VJ, which I will discuss further when I introduce the documentary film course that I will be teaching in January, and Rip: A Remix Manifesto, which I will take up now.

Rip explores the music of mash-up artist Girl Talk as a way of introducing questions about intellectual property.  It is  not intended to add much new to the subject, focusing instead on raising awareness among those who have not yet been exposed to it, so those who are already familiar with the issues will find it a little simplistic.  Its tone is openly rhetorical, as you might expect from a manifesto, most often preferring the engaging generalization to the subtle argument, but it is usually able to convey the essential ideas nevertheless.

A good example of its approach can be found with its section on the history of copyright law.  It gives a brief explanation of the first copyright law formed in England and an equally brief explanation of the most recent copyright law, but it is content to pass over the details of these acts and to ignore the many legislative and legal interventions that contributed to the transition from one to the other.  The audience is clearly shown that copyright has been vastly extended over the past few hundred years, but it is not given the details of how this extension occurred.  So, while newcomers to the question of intellectual property may very well find this idea provocative, there is little that would enable them to develop an informed opinion or to locate themselves with respect to the current legal questions and legislative initiatives before the courts and legislatures.  The film is a good introduction in many ways, to be sure, but it is always only an introduction.

Even as an introductory tool, however, the film has its short comings.  For example, it does not distinguish very well between the acts of ripping. mixing, and burning, each of which poses very different legal and artistic questions, even at a very basic level.  It is one thing for me to make a copy of someone else’s work, another thing for me to alter that work for my own ends, and another thing again for me to produce and distribute this work for other people, but all of these things are lumped together in the film, and this sometime results in some poor reasoning and some false conclusions.

The film also focuses too heavily on intellectual property in music and film, touching only very briefly on the more serious aspects of intellectual property, like the patenting of living material, the length of patents on potentially life-saving drugs and other medical technologies, and the copyrighting of material that materially pertains to the ability of people to make a living or exercise freedom of speech.  These oversights are perhaps to be expected in a film that is using a musician as a case study, but they have tendency to reduce the intellectual property debate to the question of artistic and cultural freedom when much more material things are also at stake.

Despite these problems, the film is generally successful in raising the central ideas of the intellectual property debate, and it does include one section that I found quite profound.  The section is set in Brazil, where the government has decided that it will not respect United States copyright law but will allow and even foster the creative reuse of cultural artifacts.  In this context, the film quotes the  Cannibal Manifesto by the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade, and suggests that cannibalism might be a useful metaphor for understanding the creative process, where the artists of the present cannibalize the artists of the past in order to take the strength of the past into themselves.

This idea is attractive to me.  Though I have encountered it before with respect to how writers make use of one another’s writing, I have never made the fairly obvious move of extending it to the creative process generally, and I had never understood how political an image it actually is.  After all, this discourse of cannibalism is being used by a Brazilian to oppose a European culture that has been imposed on him, and doing so by making use of that European culture’s long history of regarding his native culture in terms of savagery and cannibalism.  The film itself mostly passes over these political implications, but there are some interesting correlations between the kinds of cultural impositions made by the European colonizers on the native inhabitants of Brazil and those being made by today’s big media cultural colonizers on most of the world, and if the figure of the cannibal consumes the body of the enemy in order to take the enemy’s strength, all the while playing through and against the enemy’s stereotype of the savage, there is a very real sense, I think, in which today’s open culture movement might want to regard itself as cannibalistic.