For two weeks in January, I taught an undergraduate intensive course at Hampshire College on network culture and its discontents as part of my post-baccalaureate residency with 5CollDH.
I had been planning the course for months—refining the topic, gathering material for the syllabus, and refining it even more. When I started my digging, I knew I wanted to discuss possible politics and philosophies of networks, but I had no idea where that might lead. My research ended up surprising me continuously, and the in-class discussions that came after opened my eyes even further to the possibilities that we—as academics, activists, and artists—might find in critically parsing network architectures.
I chose the title “Peer2Peer” not because the class would be specifically about p2p models, but rather to highlight what is at stake when the apparatuses that connect peers to other peers are occluded. What is the governance hiding between ‘p’ and ‘p’? What are the ethics? What constitutes labor and what constitutes love between networked peers? How are those peers subjectivized in the network? Who can really be considered ‘peers’ of each other anyway?
In this post, I’ll go through the syllabus of the course—describing how I chose the pieces and what some of the outcomes were from engaging them in class. If you’re interested, everything on the syllabus (as well as extra resources generated through discussions) can be accessed on the website (p2p.5colldh.org), and in the next month or so a printed reader of student essays from the course will be published online and in print. So please please check back for that!
Day 1: P2P / Invisible Hands
We started with a chapter from Alexander Galloway‘s book Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, which traces some of the specific formal affinities of the Internet—including link continuity, intuitive movement, and the creation of ‘a smooth space’ among media types—in order to explore what actions these forms affect. Galloway’s comparisons of the Internet, capitalism, and cinema are particularly useful (e.g. all three “create an apparatus to hide their apparatus”). The chapter also disrupts the conflation of ‘decentralized’ structures with ‘democratic’ ones, highlighting the ways in which Internet protocols are neither as horizontal nor as free as they are often presumed (see TCP/IP versus DNS protocols.)
We also read the first section of “The Cybernetic Hypothesis” by French philosophical collective Tiqqun. The essay is an unapologetic, historically-rooted critique of the cybernetic imperative—that is to say, the techno-enlightenment ideal of statistical governance and control. Tiqqun explores the cultural drives of cyberneticians from the 1960s onwards, questioning where the desires to predict and engineer social bodies really came from.
Above: Terrifying video campaign for Internet.org
Day 2: Networks & Neoliberalism
The connections between neoliberalism and networks are incredibly complex. On day two of the course, we looked primarily to part three of Tiqqun’s “The Cybernetic Hypothesis” and a chapter from Geert Lovink‘s Unorganized Networks to elucidate some of these convergences. Lovink, who is the founder and director of the Institute for Network Cultures, is prolific in his writing and research on freedom, democracy, and the commons among networks. The chapter we read (“Whose Democracy? NGOs, Information Societies and Non-Representative Democracy”) explores Chantal Mouffe’s conceptions of an agonistic democracy, in which consensus is not presupposed and differences among people and experiences are not reducible to an abstract notion of “equality.”
This was counterposed with neoliberal economist Milton Freedman‘s parable of the pencil (see: right), which traces the making of a pencil as an example of the free-market’s divine ability to “unite people with nothing in common” in order to create something of value. In his understanding, sociopolitical difference is external, unimportant, and able to be abstracted—all that matters is the connectivity of laborers, resources and consumers. As a class, we parsed the ways in which networks laud such abstract connectivity over real acceptance, agony, or ethical navigation of difference, and considered the shared goal of networks and neoliberalism to automatically assimilate everyone and everything.
Above: Terrifying ode to neoliberal connectivity by Milton Freedman
Day 3: Finance / Language / Subjectivity
The third day took themes from day two and asked if the connections between network models and speculative finance have engendered a new type of speculative, networked subjectivity. Two essays by Italian autonomist writer Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (“Soul Work” and “Emancipation from the Sign: Poetry and Finance During the Twentieth Century“) opened up discussion on the relationships between language, currency, and data. Says Berardi: “Money and language have something in common: they are nothing and yet they move everything. They are nothing but symbols, conventions, flatus vocis, but they have the power to persuade human beings to act, to work, and to transform physical things.” When subjectivities circulate like currency in the network, there is necessarily an excess of exhaustion and precarity. In the economy of the network, workers no longer go to their factory jobs and leave their souls at the door; rather, they are asked to bring their souls (i.e. their passion, subjectivity, and language) and offer them as the very raw material of their work.
This led in to Brian Kuan Wood’s fantastic essay “Is it Love?”, which became a grounding thread for the duration of the course. This had been a favorite essay of mine for awhile, but I had no idea how much it would contribute to our understanding of network affect as a class. Furthering Bifo’s theories on collective exhaustion, Brian Kuan Wood explains the ways in which post-Fordist networking requires a constant stream of unremunerated labor (aka “love”). Says Kuan Wood:
Love abounds on information networks—like a home, every inbox is a cacophony of emotions, of simple pleasures, seething frustrations, of unconditional support and permanent disavowals, of silent treatments and gushing confessions. It is through bonds of solidarity that all the things that that cannot be registered and accounted for—because they are irrational and errant and ill defined suspended interactions—find their place, either due to tolerance or an ability to codify or both. In this sense, what I am talking about is a bloat in the sphere of mutual solidarities, a bubble that is no longer economic but will only burst as an aneurism or an uprising—its effects will not be registered according to any language so far understood as being within the realm of economy.
Day 4: Freedom from Everything
Week one ended with a deeper focus on the blurring of labor and love among network ecologies. Of several assigned essays (including another section from “The Cybernetic Hypothesis” and a brilliant essay by Tiziana Terranova), Hito Steyerl’s “Freedom From Everything: Freelancers and Mercenaries” centered our discussion with real weight as well as aesthetic speculation.
Steyerl picks apart the etymology of freelance alongside the figure of the ronin (i.e. the wandering warrior without ties to a lord or leader) as an entry point into the types of freedom typified by post-Fordist systems of creative labor and neoliberal governance. She explains,
We are accustomed to regarding freedom as primarily positive—the freedom to do or have something; thus there is the freedom of speech, the freedom to pursue happiness and opportunity, or the freedom of worship. But now the situation is shifting. Especially in the current economic and political crisis, the flip-side of liberal ideas of freedom—namely, the freedom of corporations from any form of regulation, as well as the freedom to relentlessly pursue one’s own interest at the expense of everyone else’s—has become the only form of universal freedom that exists: the freedom from social bonds, freedom from solidarity, freedom from certainty or predictability, freedom from employment or labor, freedom from culture, public transport, education, or anything public at all.
We also countered this discussion on the digitization of labor (i.e. making labor extensible and “free” in bits) with a striking portrait of the labor of digitization: “Workers Leaving the Googleplex” by Andrew Norman Wilson. The single channel video is a collage of footage Wilson took of workers leaving the 3.14 building on the Google campus, after long hours scanning pages for Google’s open book database. The labor of these “yellow badge workers” is monotonous and invisiblized; as with Alex Galloway’s description of the network, their labor “creates an apparatus to hide the apparatus.”
Day 5: Can Solidarity Emerge in Networks?
The first day of week two provided an intentional pause in all the social and political theory. Three recent articles provided concrete reminders of what is at stake at this very moment: the first looked at crowdfunded, privatized security in gentrifying neighborhoods, the second on the implications of #umbrellamovement on the 2014 suffrage protests in Hong Kong, and the third on the potential benefit of cryptocurrency to the sovereignty of indigenous tribes.
The first piece (written by Puck Lo for Al Jazeera) picks apart some of the political implications of networking and privatization on mixed-income neighborhoods in Oakland. In rapidly-gentrifying Rockridge and Temescal, some residents have resorted to online crowd-funding platforms to raise money for private policing. These platforms require no town hall meetings or door-to-door canvassing and can be contributed to by non-residents, thus rupturing traditional notions of democratic representation and process. The hired private security officers—who often dress up like OPD to trick potential offenders—are not even held to the general oversight of city police practices. As a class, we discussed the ways in which p2p models work by abstracting traditional institutions between peers (i.e. “cutting out the middle men”), but in so doing, they also abstract what little public process remained within those institutions.
Day 6: … The End of the Social
After a break in philosophy, we dove right in to Jean Baudrillard‘s essay “In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities.” Though written in 1983, the essay seemed more relevant than ever when juxtaposed with the articles we read the previous day. Baudrillard’s primary focus in the piece is the concept of “the masses”: how they are subjectivized into a singular “lumpen-analytical notion,” how they speak (or don’t), and how they are heard (or not). He picks apart the “consensus culture” of polls, surveys, and mass media, which flatten and hollow out difference into generalized apathy or opinion.
Day 7: Illegibility / Fog / Refusal
The next day was truly exhausting. I chose pieces that were meant to offer strategies for countering network imperatives, and drew from queer theory, protest culture, and critical performances of race to do so. If we understand the network to be both coercive and corrosive, perhaps those identity politics that combine anti-assimilationism and informational “darkness” will be most important to our understandings of resistance. After talking through “Queer Darkness” by Zach Blas (aka “Queer Technologies”) and “Silence, Delirium, Lies” by Caroline Bassett, however, it became clear that our discussions thus far have only been the beginning to a very long and insidious struggle. Half of class time was spent combing through our gut feelings and frustrations in response to the tremendous difficulty in applying these abstract concepts of struggle to real daily practices alongside increased surveillance, policing, and sociopolitical disparity.
Day 8: Democracy and Post-Representation
The very last day we watched a video piece by artist Amalia Ulman and read a speculative/poetic appendix for a liberated computer language by Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker. These were coupled with an interview with Hito Steyerl on the Politics of Post-Representation and a really gnarly manifesto on Accelerationism by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek.
The #ACCELERATE Manifesto in particular prompted folks (including myself) to actually argue for quite awhile, which was incredibly refreshing. The manifesto proclaims that we do not yet understand the immensity of technological potential held captive and made latent by global capitalism. Rather than ascribe to a Leftism that promotes a return to primitivist localism, the authors suggest that we must keep the best parts of globalization and digitization and “accelerate” through capital to reach a new, socially and ecologically-conscious Leftist hegemony. While no one in the class felt compelled to take the manifesto completely to heart, we fought about which parts of the text really mattered and were worth hanging on to.
Above: Image from DIS Magazine in interview with Hito Steyerl
(Thanks to everyone who made this course possible!)