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Whose finger points at the (open source) moon?

One of the most notable and essential aspects of open-source cultural values (as informed by FLOSS) is the variety of authorship positions offered in place of the singular author figure that supports the formulation of classical intellectual property discourse. Here I’m speaking particularly in reference to the adoption of open source values and methodologies by the cultural realm; from critical media to contemporary art practice and their dissemination.

We know all about the traditional singular author figure, whether an Enlightenment rationalist or Romantic genius. The histories traced by open sourcers[1] to describe the classical author figure tends to emphasise the thesis that singular, proprietary authorship became the prominent model via capitalism’s largely incommensurate encounter with the technologies of reproducibility of information. The condensed version: capitalism, dependent on scarcity, will develop models of restriction over anything inherently useful; the model of restriction appropriate to the printing press was the invention of the singular author, who could hold intellectual property.

Yet female authorship – as with all female labour - has rarely been anything but a mitigated, compromised, negotiated, temporary accessing of this form of privilege. Until very recently, aside from the privileged and persistent few middle- to upper-class white women of history, when they finally get behind the pen, the canvas, the podium, the banner, something strange often happened. Women worked under male pseudonyms, or anonymously, in order to be respectable and, indeed, even published in the first place; they unwillingly gave their work to their husbands’ names, who reaped all the rewards except for knowledge that is was not his ideas that were entering the world;they publish open-source fan fiction on the internet for free circulation and community improvement (not necessarily with any particular moral or technical awareness of the discourse of FLOSS); they participated in creative fields, they made works and were recognised within movements and individually, except in the process of historicisation when they were relegated to the footnotes and the relational anecdotes; they developed doggedly open forms of decision-making, and invented consensus; they campaign under the names of dead female artists to get their point across, because they know the potential of female anonymity within patriarchy. The history of female creativity is one of constant negotiation with a system of values that meant that women’s work rarely, if ever, was presented on the same terms as men’s – and never with the same benefits. From a female perspective, then, development of complex authorship positions came not from a moralistic self-denial of privilege, but out of sheer necessity.

FLOSS now influences a persuasive set of authorship models as alternatives to proprietary motives for production. Some of these are entirely consistent with the examples above, but are expressed with the implicit assumption that the alternative is a genuine rejection of an authorial privilege that was freely available.

In Chapter Five of The Electronic Disturbance, Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production, the Critical Art Ensemble argue powerfully for the increase of status of practices associated with plagiarism, and incisively identify the incidence of plagiarism as a core contributor even to that authorial hall of sainthood, the artistic and literary canon. Their intention here is to note the ‘contamination’ of the canon (that we are presumed to have understood as ‘pure’ and ‘original’) with plagiarism and other borrowings all along. Originality in art and literature was never originality. Mitigated authorship always formed the core of our canon. Yet in discussing only white, male, canonical 'plagiarist' authors, they miss the point: their invocation of such 'plagiarists' masks the work of the invisible others, rather than displaying any curiosity about them. "Let the romantic notions of originality, genius, and authorship remain, but as elements for cultural production without special privilege above other equally useful elements." What this does not fully acknowledge is that 'authorship, originality, and genius' are operations of privilege; what they propose is an ontological impossibility.[2] So, in fact, neither fully privileged traditional authorship, nor its radical plagiarist alternatives, necessarily advance the egalitarian drive of open source cultural operations in practice, for they are often one and the same thing.

This is in marked contrast to the notion that FLOSS stems from resourcefulness in the face of capitalist scarcity; the fact that this model works in terms of programming, but not cultural activity, is probably a whole other discussion. However, when asking about the origins of such FLOSS-influenced European cultural initiatives as NODE.London, Who Makes And Owns Your Work (Stockholm), Disclosures (London), and Open Congress (London); I found that the common factor enabling their inception in every case was a financial surplus. With this awareness, the assumption that the cultural open-sourcer is automatically working from the position of the underdog is at least worth questioning in relation to the wider egalitarian debates brought up here.

---____---

So, thanks to the presence of privilege - sometimes where we least expect it, like the Spanish Inquisition - these discussions are gendered. The egalitarian relationship to the enclosing of information via intellectual property and its agent, the traditional author, is told largely from an implicitly male perspective. Today we are told about the inherently open source practice of hip hop musicians, who are criminalised by their use of samples owned by music corporations. From a female perspective, to be prevented from creative labour, or from reaping its rewards, by a restrictive, proprietary regime is not historically surprising or unusual. The only difference is that it was not the creative material that was owned, it was women’s bodies and thus all of their labour - a relation that runs far deeper than the effect of enclosure of source material in intellectual property.

The relationship between intellectual property and land ownership within UK-based open source narratives have been well and convincingly rehearsed, via a revisiting of the histories of land enclosure in the UK and, later, in Europe.[3] Thus open source debates about openness and commonality of information have a long and admirably argued relationship to the notion of territory. The egalitarian instinct in the face of this story is, indeed, to rail against the enclosure of anything; of land, of information. Yet to women, with little and only recent ownership or control over public space, nor over the products of their labour (which often goes on record as not even existing), nor over their bodies: to be told that the moral and hip and intellectually valid thing to do right now is to give your work away or not have your name on it; is something of an irony.

----____--___--_---

So it has often struck me how diametrically opposed are the two rhetorical positions of open source, and female bodily autonomy. Ideas around female bodily autonomy are necessarily trenchant; nobody harps on about the autonomy of the male body, because it already is (at least in moralistic discourse if not in global lived reality). The discourse of female bodily autonomy says that a woman’s body, and all that happens to it and lives in it, are her own, at her disposal and nobody else’s. This argument is constructed specifically against reality: in actual fact, women’s bodies are sold, compartmentalised, instrumentalised, made available, invaded, legislated over, in short held in common in myriad ideological and physical ways.

By contrast, the vehemence of the open source argument rails precisely against the conditions of capitalist reality that places private ownership and (market) value onto anything, ideologically, experientially, conceptually, and physically, that can be privatised and then hoovered into its system (and that, as well we know, means a lot of stuff).

The feminist relationship to FLOSS, then, is curious, because she is simultaneously harbouring – and in my case, with equal passion - two highly opposed ways of thinking about the common and the private. This struck me some time ago, and the two areas – female bodily autonomy, and the ultimate openness of (mostly digitised) cultural material – seemed so distant that I thought I would never need to reconcile the two. But online one day, because, regardless of likelihood, no realm of male sexual privilege should ever possibly remain unexplored, I wandered into the Open Source Boob Project. One day at a geek convention called Penguicon, a group of friends initiated a system of badges whereby they could determine which women were willing to allow strangers to feel their breasts at the convention. Notwithstanding the fact that actually, most men can touch any woman’s breasts with legal impunity almost any day he likes (such are the laxity of a majority of sexual harassment laws, where they exist), the mammarian open sourcers congratulated themselves on a system whereby "[...]one person are [sic] told with gropes and touches that they are desirable and the other is someone who's allowed to desire." (what a deal!).

Naturally this incident is not in the least bit typical of open source debate and I in no way wish to accuse open sourcers of being sexist in the manner of the initiators of the Open Source Boob Project.[4] But it acts as an elephant-in-the-room exaggeration on two issues: the pious ironies possible in the egalitarian drive of open source initiatives via an unacknowledged acceptance of male-centric hegemonies; and the mitigated ideological relationship between the automatic, moral assumption of privacy inherent to female bodily autonomy, and the presumption of commonality that underpins open source.

_--____--__------___

Why is it that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic? Nancy Hartshock

Radical intellectual property discourse, then, depends on a close reading of the historical development of the author-figure to justify its argumentation. In the light of history, many open source configurations of authorship could legitimately be considered in alliance with feminist anti-hierarchical objectives, and the commonalities are many. However, encouragements to sharing and openness often are proposed with the presumption that we all live with the same notion of and access to the privileges of ‘the private’ and have the same level of agency over what, of our selves and our production, becomes ‘public’.

[1] For the purposes of this text 'open sourcers' will denote those who are interested in the transfer of FLOSS practices and values into the cultural realm, particularly via contemporary art and critical media practice.This describes a tendency rather than a specific group and exists as an umbrella term for a share, yet not entirely undifferentiated, area of practice.

[2]Christine Battersby's 'Gender and Genius Towards a Feminist Aesthetics' discusses this in depth.

[3] For research on a current related project, read the research notes for the forthcoming project about the open field system of Laxton curated by Anna Colin at Nottingham Contemporary, at Pipeline.

[4] Two excellent critiques of the Open Source Boob Project can be found at the same Web 2.0 application that its description was posted, Livejournal: here (by a user called springheel_jack) and here (by a user called Misia)

 

possessive individualism, redux

A very thought-provoking argument, particularly in pointing out that open-sourcery stems from surplus value and, consequently, that open-sourcers' claims to marginality are rather dubious.

But it is at the same time vexedly problematic. Nancy Hartshock goes to the heart of the issue: "Why is it," she asks, "that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic?" Well, the short answer is that the "demands" of the silenced have tended to problematise subjecthood -- and their most intellectually engaging demands had less to do with being allowed access into (male) subjecthood than with deconstructing the whole conceptual meta-institution of subjecthood.

Perhaps their strongest argument came in the form of a radical critique of individualism and ownership (also the preferred targets of open-sourcers): at the ideological roots of individualism and the emergence of subjecthood (in Locke and other 17th-century theorists) is property ownership, and the primary form of that fiction (the fiction of ownership, which governs the fiction of "privacy") is the ownership of oneself, of one's own body (when you don't own anything else). That "possessive individualism" was useful for the abolition of slavery but it has turned out to be the deepest-seated and most perfidious self-evidence in the ideological arsenal of capitalism. How ironic, then, to see such arguments trundled out in defense of female bodily autonomy.

 

re:

their most intellectually engaging demands had less to do with being allowed access into (male) subjecthood than with deconstructing the whole conceptual meta-institution of subjecthood.
I agree with this, though I've taken this as a given that underpins the discussion; but that is, let's say, a slow project, and the voices that are taking up this debate in the open-source cultural field meanwhile seem to pay more attention to the economic and distributive aspects affecting an alternative authorship model, rather than their gendered aspects and the wealth of inherited female experience of exactly such complex (and often forced) author-positions. This text was more attempting to note this as a highly gendered lack in some of the debates, rather than an attempt to re-institute the classical author position as a brand new podium with a space for the man as well as the woman.

How ironic, then, to see such arguments trundled out in defense of female bodily autonomy.
Well, not really trundled out but presented as a currently irreducible tension that is acutely more perceptible from a female subjectivity.

That "possessive individualism" was useful for the abolition of slavery but it has turned out to be the deepest-seated and most perfidious self-evidence in the ideological arsenal of capitalism.
I don't know much about this. Can you point me towards...?

 

subterranean shift

I very much like the insight that there are competing arguments moving at different speeds -- mapping that kind of a dynamic field (like overlapping cognitive tectonic plates) would in itself be a fascinating game to play, on a constantly shifting field. You're no doubt right that the ongoing deconstruction of subjecthood is proceeding slower than the zippy new collective authorship models, whose very conditions of possibility and usage ironically depend on that slower subterranean shift.

My point about the historical emergence of what CB MacPherson usefully termed "possessive individualism" (in a book of the same name) is that the counter-factual, normative argument according to which "a woman’s body, and all that happens to it and lives in it, are her own, at her disposal and nobody else’s" doesn't come out of nowhere and given its history is not value neutral. It is a strangely alienating arrangement indeed to establish a "property" relationship to one's body and self... I would prefer to say: "I am my body" rather than "I have a body" (who am I?) or worse still "I own my body."

It is clear how this underpins all legal opposition to slavery: in law, if not of course in social fact, ownership of one's body and self is inalienable. I own myself to the exclusion of all others and cannot relinquish my ownership. That must seem good if you're seeking enfranchisement, but it comes at an extraordinary cost: it makes possession (possessive individualism) of things the very basis of social being.

Which is why people like me (http://www.skor.nl/article-3090-en.html) have sought to re-invigorate the tradition of the Diggers, because they are emblematic of a still ongoing subterranean current of protest against the more above ground current of possessive individualism.

 

rehearsing some ideas and moving on

Firstly, thanks for the book rec - sounds like something I need to read.

That must seem good if you're seeking enfranchisement, but it comes at an extraordinary cost: it makes possession (possessive individualism) of things the very basis of social being.
I suppose the standard feminist response here is to invoke the male-centredness (if you are indeed a cisgendered and able-bodied male) of your perspective, which, already enjoying the benefits of the fullest bodily autonomy available to humankind, can only see the acceptance of this immediate, thoroughly useful 'solution' to female oppression as a barrier to your long term, barely achievable but highly professionally rewarding conceptual/theoretical projects, around which, ironically enough, you retain your moral high ground.

Even though the above is totally tongue in cheek, I do see possessive individualism as useful - in the short term - in the sense that it is simple to express linguistically, and is applicable in current western law (possession being the proverbial nine-tenths). While in law, the protections offered are only barely useful, at least the everyday rhetoric of self-ownership provides an accessible set of ideas that are invaluable to a woman or girl who, almost concurrent with her development, is psychologically negotiating the world's access to her physical and ideological body.

But moving on from that, because yes, it doesn't propel the wider aim ... basically think instead having accepted your critique and sharing the wider interest in a model of subjectivity beyond possession; don't we just arrive at the same impasse I proposed initially? Or, 'I am my body' seems like the next best place to start. That nicely destroys the binary I set up, but I don't know how to take that further with regards to either the commons or the Diggers now...

[edited for grammar]

 

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