Why we’re still not content with ”content”
27 januari 2007
Jonas Andersson from the Liquid Culture crew at Goldsmiths College has written a piece in response to the published version of a presentation we held at 22C3 in Berlin just over a year ago, where we presented some concepts in relation to Piratbyran‘s activities.
This response is published as a chapter in a recent book, under the name The Pirate Bay and the ethos of sharing [pdf]. I find some of it worth commenting – in English, for once – and if some if it might be about details, it’s only in order to try to highlight how our approaches are different (but not opposed).
Rasmus Fleischer and Palle Torsson — the authors behind the influential ‘grey commons’ speech — insist on talking about file-sharing as a horizontal activity; /…/ They thus equate ‘grey’ /…/ with the blurring of distinction between consumers and producers (they actually hold that the demarcation between these two is ‘impossible to institutionalize’).What does it mean that the distinction between ”consumers” and ”producers” is impossible to institutionalize? Simply take a look at the existing copyright collectives. All the billions they collect by license fees on music in public places, on online streaming services like Last.fm, from cassette tapes and MP3 players. The money is supposed to ”compensate the copyright holders”, but the only way to identify any formal approximate of the group of humans known as the cultural producers, the systems have to rely on playlists from (highly formatted) FM radio stations. That, I’d say, is proof that such a distinction is impossible to institutionalize.
I see this refusal to distinguish between ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ as a strategic, arguably even propagandistic move
But it certainly does not mean that we today live in a post-modern world where every instance of cultural consumption should be regarded equally ”productive” as any traditional authorship.
I think that Jonas Andersson reads us through a lens heavily influenced by the British cultural studies tradition, thus understanding the Grey Commons speech as an ”attempt at a positive retribution of the productive nature of consumption”. But I’m not so sure about that. Maybe it’s rather the other way around: The consuming nature of production (a point where we both nod towards Walter Benjamin). It’s exactly, as Jonas Andersson write, about ”consumption so thorough, intense, dedicated that it goes into overdrive, becomes explicitly productive”.
In a later lecture, I characterized ”contemporary cultural production not as the opposite of consumption, but rather as a deviant kind of excessive and passionate consumption”. And that’s why I’m still not satisfied with asserting that consumption is ”the primer … the true locus of culture”. We agree that consumption and production are false opposites, but I would like to add that it’s mainly because it obscures the really much more useful concept: performing.
And that’s also what I want to point at, when Jonas Andersson defends the word ”content” against our indeed sweeping attack on it:
Even more problematic is the further assertion /…/ that we should refuse the term ‘content’ on the whole and instead talk about the Internet solely in terms of ‘communication’.The materiality is the performative – ”the art happens here” as elegantly visualizes in the Net Art Diagrams. Why communication should imply a denial of materiality is indeed hard to understand.
I find this not only counterintuitive but devaluing towards the work of us actual media producers: I for one certainly do not see my own creations as sheer ‘communication’ — I value them as true artefacts of beauty and non-conformance, although they are entirely digital. Eminent theorists like N. Katherine Hayles have shown that also virtual objects have materiality.
”Content” – the astracted object of copyright law – means immateriality, denial of context.
That abstracting ”content” means eliminating the performative aspect always present in media use, becomes extremely clear by reading governmental strategy papers about ”creative industries”, like the recent The economy of culture in Europe.
the entertainment industry /…/ treat p2p as a clear and present dangerThe formulation reveals a content-based definition of the entertainment industry which I find unfortunate, as it excludes everything from festivals and clubs to web communities (who largely affirm p2p, to some extent), only including the ”immaterial” businesses in the ”entertainment industry”.
Maybe it’s better to distinguish between a ”content industry” on one hand, and an ”entertainment sector” or ”cultural sector” on the other, with the important difference that this sector is to a large extent ”beyond measure”; immersed in a grey economy, and intermingled through performative acts with all other sectors of the economy.
Jonas Andersson warns against the risk of devaluating artworks and media producers; I rather see the risk of devaluating performances and performers, a risk that will probably remain strong as long as economic discussions about culture keep relating to the copyright discourse (if even in an antagonistic way!).
Of course a focus on communication, rather than content, does not make away with the need to talk about works of art. But we cannot wish away the fact that P2P networks are communication media, whee you are ”fetching data” – even if you do it in order to be ”copying artworks”.
File-sharing becomes a consumer tool”, Jonas writes. And that’s probably correct – sociologically speaking. But understanding the dynamics of the file-sharing phenomenon cannot be the work of social sciences alone.
Horizontality is not altruism. But it makes effective information infrastructures. Information does not want to be anything. But internet will not listen to reason.
It is not the matter of ‘rights,’ like in the alleged ‘right’ of acquiring information for free; /…/I couldn’t agree more.
To put it bluntly: People copy because they can. Now deal with it.
Play is the new grey!