On Methods

The following text is a methodological introduction to a talk I gave at Bard's Center for Curatorial Studies yesterday. A video of the talk, which is on the topic of intellectual property under network culture will be forthcoming soon.  

At hand today is a discussion of publics and property under network culture. The reading that I will undertake emerges originally out of work that I did while a senior fellow at the Networked Publics group of the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The work of our year-long faculty seminar was published in the book Networked Publics and my attempt to make sense of that time outside of my usual field of study in architecture led me to the conclusion of that book, which in turn is now a crucial project tentatively titled “The Meaning of Network Culture: A Critical History of the Contemporary.”    

My goal with this project is to create a model of the contemporary world, much as other writers did for the postmodern era. Over the last few years, I’ve found it more and more incongruous that theorists still refer to our moment as postmodern or use postmodern theory to reflect on the contemporary. Although there is unquestionably utility to going back to the texts of the 1980s, just as there is utility to going back to the texts of the 1930s or 1730s, it seems to me that if T. J. Clark wrote in 1999 that “modernism is our antiquity,” for us, a decade later, postmodernism is, if not Rome to modernism’s Athens, then it must be our dark ages. 

I sense that it must be the latter—not because of questions of value, but rather because of the sense that the Fall only came once, at the end of the modern. The end of the postmodern seems to have barely been noted. Where Fredric Jameson begins his discussion of the postmodern with the sense of an end, we have no such sense. Instead, if postmodernism quite clearly ended—except for some academic theorists, who it seems are reciting from syllabi they developed many years ago—we still only sense the end of the modern which, if anything, has become more sharply defined. As Jean Baudrillard suggested a decade ago, with the millennium, the end of the end had been reached. It seems that he was right. 

Thus, when the 90s ended and our decade—and it’s crucial for me that in the United States, at least, there is no signifier for this decade—began in earnest, after September 11, 2001, the sharpness of the idea that nothing would be the same was soon replace by the Bush administration’s idea that the war on terror would be perpetual, that there could be no end to it, that it would be interminable. Now, under Obama, it’s the economic crisis as well that is interminable, a condition from which we cannot conceived of escaping for decades. 

But as a historian, this sense of an atemporal disturbs me. Instead, I’d like to turn back to Jameson for a certain inspiration, in particular to the injunction which he begins the book with: “Always historicize!” In particular, then, the question is, can we make a model that can describe a series of cultural phenomena? This principle of totality, which is crucial for Jameson in his definition of postmodernism, also ran up against postmodern historiography’s critique of totality. This is the famous conundrum in Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

Lyotard, who very much had Marxism as his target, argued that it was the decline of master narratives such as Marxism or logical positivism that marked the postmodern condition. Still, it’s as if postmodernist thinkers used the Derridean idea of putting terms “under erasure” on postmodernism. For an era that could not have a master narrative, it did. 

Again from our more distant vantage point, it might be possible to follow Clark’s Farewell to an Idea and see postmodernism as being very much the consequence of the end of modernization. Once that process was complete, and the world have been modernized, an event that happened in the postwar era, that world became lost to us. Postmodernism, then, announced itself as having taking place after modernization and, if modernization relied on master narratives, postmodernism set itself adrift as the last master narrative, but one which could not anticipate its own development. 

Still, whether we go to New Orleans to look at Charles Moore’s Piazza d’italia or to Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the works of the Pictures generation in the recent, this work seems strangely unfamiliar. Something has changed, and the change is, if anything, an uncanny one, a sense that we have that while we were caught up in the dot.com boom, the millennium, and then the real estate boom, the immediate past slipped from our grasp. 

So to make some sense of all this, it is crucial to build a broad new interpretative framework. In doing so, I want to unfashionably revisit the concept of totality. 

If, as a Marxist, Jameson suggests that postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism, maybe its possible to understand today’s condition as the product of networked capital. 

First, let’s look at the role of the network. Already in the Global City and the Rise of the Network Society, Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells did much to demonstrate that by the mid-1990s, capital, and with it society, was becoming dominated by networked flows. 

But second, there is a force to the network itself. As Charlie Gere points out, digital culture was marked by abstraction, that is by the reduction of complex entities into abstractions that could then be traded as commodities. But now, its less the abstracted entity that matters and more its position within the global network. This, I suggest is a fundamental shift. 

With it too, is a more fundamental shift within capitalism itself. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Marxist thinkers repeatedly attacked the idea of post-industrialism as deceitful. In their view, industrial production was still a determinate reality. But this soon began to shift, first to the Post-Fordist service sector, as David Harvey convincingly argued in the Postmodern Condition and then to the financialization. The latter is key. In Foucault Beyond Foucault, Jeffrey Nealon suggests that the Marx’s famous equation M-C-M‘ is now superceded by a new equation M-M‘ in which money is intensified without the necessity of commodity production. 

This may seem to be folly, but after all, it is the primary driver of the advanced financial sectors during the last decade. Sure, China produced industrial goods, but the developed world largely abandoned them along with agriculture. Where a 8% return on investment in industry had been healthy in the 1950s, it had become laughable by the mid part of this decade when financial instruments could return triple that to the average individual, let alone the investment bank. 

The economic collapse of the last two years does little to change that. If some nodes have been cut off the network, Detroit, for example, the growth of high-speed trading suggests that the financial system, at its highest (and therefore dominant) levels is increasingly not only financialized but networked. The laughably slow actions of the human trader are now replaced by high-speed computers connected to ultra-low-latency networks located at strategic points in the planetary financial network. Even the suggestion that cities are command-and-control centers of the word economy needs to be questioned when the Philadelphia Exchange is in Weehauwken, New Jersey whil the NYSE is in Mahwah, New Jersey. 

Of course the network has had a vastly transformational effect on our lives outside of it. Where postmodernism was a period of economic restructuring, shedding the old industrial order, our period of restructuring is marked by the intense networking of the world, albeit at the same time as a new economic restructuring in which the educated and creative classes seem to be facing the same landscape of uncertainty that the working classes faced in the 1980s. So, too, the dimension of the network is vast, entirely unlike that of the 1980s. State monopolies have been replaced by competing and converging wireless and wired networks. According to the United Nations over half the world’s population now has a cell phone.

Now, my project is meant as a heuristic model. It is not meant as a new master narrative although undoubtedly it risks that but just as Jameson defended the concept of the postmodern, I defend the idea of network culture as being useful for us to try and make connections where they might otherwise be unclear. Most especially, if the system itself aims at its own total reach, it seems to me that to avoid modeling it prevents us from understanding it and, thus, fighting it. 

I do want to make it clear that I am not in the business of promoting an alternative strategy at this point. First, I think that if it is anachronistic, I do believe in the value of certain intellectual divisions. By specializing and focusing, we can aim for a degree of rigor. Moreover, it seems to me that one of the problems with theory in the 1990s was not that it delivered so little, but that it promised so much. Theory aimed to be not only an explanatory model, but also an avant-garde with specific political projects. It seems to me that the failure and superficial nature of such projects did as much to eviscerate theory as anything else. In other words, I suggest that my project is to always historicize and, to do so, map the system that we find ourselves trapped in but for now, I am leaving open the methods by which such a system can be fought or what it can be replaced with. My intent here is humility, that theorists trained more in politics than in culture might be better equipped for such responses.  

In the investigation that follows, it is crucial to think dialectically and to understand both the positive and the negative within network culture. This is what will concern me for the rest of this talk, which will focus on the specific occasion today, which is the role of intellectual property and networked publics today. 

 

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