McKenzie Wark on Tue, 13 Jun 2000 02:24:46 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

Re: <nettime> [talk given at tulipomania dotcom]

Andrew Ross contributes a telling analysis of 'sacrifical labour'.
Including these remarks:

"All of the above leaves us, especially educators among us, with some
difficult questions. Are we contributing involuntarily to the problem when
we urge youth, in pursuing their career goals, to place principles of
public interest or collective political agency or creative expression
above the pursuit of material security? In a labor environment heavily
under the sway of neo-liberal business models, is it fair to say that this
service ideal invites, if it does not vindicate, the manipulation of
inexpensive labor?"

If that's what we're teaching, the answer has to be yes. But it strikes
me the problem lies, in the humanities, with a teaching that stresses
textual content over media form. Too much attention to what's on the
page, not how it is made, or circulated. 

I had an amazing argument on the cultstud-l list once about the practice
of giving photocopies of stuff out to students free. (Academics are the
original Luther Blissetts in this regard). What it means is that by
giving stuff away free, creators are denied income (along with
publishers), which means the authors don't get paid, and can't leave
their day jobs. The publishers raise the threshhold of what is a viable
publication. The students get free stuff they don't have to pay for, 
but then graduate into a (non)market where they can't sell their
textual worth because of the same practice. A classic viscous circle.

Anyway, what i discovered was that this principle of free stuff was
just sacroscanct. Amazing. Academics complaining about the lack of
income from publishing, and lack of opportunity to publish and live
off publishing, who then steal stuff from their colleagues and give it
away free. 

So what you have is a world in which everyone is dependent on teaching
for their income, or on day jobs. So you end up teaching people how
to become slaves to the same system. Dependent on the universities for
jobs, due to the lack of an alternative market for one's skills. A
market that would actually exist if copyright was protected. 

This plays into the hands of the universities, who confront workers
with nowher else to go, and who, to cap it all off, insist on training
even more workers to compete for their jobs! (IN my brief career as
a trade unionist, we kept a very close eye on the numbers in those
apprenticeship programs!)

Of course you can cue the protests about the monopoly corporations that
control academic publishing, blah, blah. But of course, with so much
copyright theft going on,  it is only the very big firms who can 
survive. They can get so much product out so fast that they can keep
ahead of the copying. And of course they skew the circulation process
towards a high turnover approach, based on fashion. You gotta buy at
least a few books or journals to be up with the latest cut.

In short, theft of copyright benefits monopoly publishers and the
universities, and it disadvantages other owners of copyright, be
they individuals or small firms. 

How can one extract a revenue stream from intellectual labour? One that
is based in intellectual property, but where that property is a 
relative, not an absolute right? So that one has private property, which
secures liberty, but one also has an intellectual commons, that secures
the common good and the common wealth. Its a classic question for
pre and post marxist political economy. Its an issue that was widely
discussed, in English law at least, in the 18th century. The century
that gave us the artist and the writer as agents in the public realm
precisely because it was when their right to property was secured.
Artists and writers emerged from shackles of patronage, and met the
owners of other kinds of property, not on an equal footing, but at
least with a leg to stand on.

But when one turns to humanities academics in the 20th century, you
find them unable to conceive of their interests as a class interest,
precisely because they cannon conceive of class in terms of property.
They imagine themselves romatically linked to propertyless workers,
when workers tend not to be such fools. The labour movement secured
what rights it could for labour as a form of property in its own
right, a property that could be alientated from its owner only under
limited conditions -- at least in those parts of the world where
social democracy prevailed.

In the highly unionised Australian academic sector, the struggle
goes on as if we were manual labourers, struggling over work load
models and such. But the question of intellectual property remains
relatively unaddressed. The photocopiers churn overtime at the
start of each semester, giving away one form of property, and
leaving us with nothing to argue about with our bosses but the
other, more manual kind. 

Just the other day i received a contract for me to sign from the
Athlone Press, asking me to sign away all rights to some writing, in
all territories, in perpetuity -- in exchange for what? The mere
privilege of being published! So dulled has the scholarly mind become
to the real mechanisms of the cultural and knowledge economy, that
it will happily sign these slave's contracts without a second

NO wonder the universities and the conglomerate publishers love
cultural studies. By focussing on the text, not the vector, on
identity, not property -- it makes perfect 'content' for others to
profit by. But fortunately there will always be some, like Andrew
Ross, who ask the right questions -- even if i doubt Andrew and i
would agree on the answers.

yours in insomnia,

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: