Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Commodification of Memory or Learning the Appropriate Use of Appropriation

It's a fascinating question, what are the politics of touch in spectacular economic relations? A touch here seems to mean the use of photographs of people, when we edit the photograph (to, say, make it a profile picture on Facebook), are we committing some form of violence? The Department of Biological Flow asks in the final, "dear you, did i engage this particular politics of touch based on prior flesh relation?"

I have it on good authority that a certain Edward Cullen living in the Cascadia region stated that the human memory is like a sieve. So...yeah, prior flesh arrangements have to be invoked for this sort of kinetic extension.

This is probably because we've entered a new phase of economic development, something that Michael Hardt had mentioned at his evening lecture last summer. Marx saw a shift from renting (with serfs doing the bidding of the land owner), to broad ownership/entrepreneurialism (I am Capital, and So Can You!), and now a seeming hybrid of these two modes.

As evidence of this shifting mode, what Guy Debord called the spectaclist economy, consider the current Intellectual Property rights debacle. In part this cannot occur without the concomitant rise of multinational corporations. In order for these to promulgate there has to be the transmission of certain basic ground rules: this factory needs to be filled with employees, those employees need to use these machines with these techniques, etc. So this was a question of cultural pedagogy. You gotta teach the people that are getting there clocks cleaned how to operate within this context. To this end there has been a somewhat one-sided transmission of what is called entertainment.

That's why, when you go to the developing world, kids are wearing "Coke Is It!" t-shirts and can quote Ice-T songs, and have copies of Jungle Fever (but still on VHS). There seems to have been a slow ebbing of the hegemony of Hollywood, not to say that it's isn't still critically important in the world. But as further evidence, consider the soft power push of Japan. Over the past three decades Japan has become the second largest economy (but now China has overtaken them, last year) in the world and subsequently has the second largest entertainment industry in the world. Subsequently, Japanese entertainment has become de rigeur for the youth in a way that I think most did not anticipate in the U.S.
(By the way, the photo on the left here is from an article in Foreign Policy by Carolyn O'Hara and it's pretty amazing.)

The key moment for this "Turning Japanese" phase was the battle over VCRs. VCR technology was pioneered by the Japanese (Thomas P. Kasulis has a great story on how the Japanese engineers were able to accomplish what the U.S. could not). Broadcast television in the late 70s and early 80s did not want the VCR available to the U.S. public, (in no small part, I'm sure, enhanced with xenophobia and racism, but also) because then people would no longer be locked into leasing their attention to the tv at the times that TV advertisers have promised their sponsors. The VCR would be a serious abrogation of this power that broadcasters had (the control of the spectacular). Of course the VCR was allowed to develop in the media ecosystem, but not without being appropriated in such a way as to benefit TV as much as possible.

Today we must consider the Internet in the same manner. There is the faux-problem of piracy and similarly today we've got the faux-problem of the Great Fire Wall of China. The Olympics in Beijing in 2008 made it clear that the West was more than happy to include China in the Game (and what was that most popular trope from that most spectacular of the spectaclist economic relations that in the U.S. we call hip hop? oh yeah, "don't hate the player, hate the Game.") The real problem, as we see today with Google, was not access to information, but rather that the established Internet authorities needed to have the access to the market. It should be no surprise that at the same time when Baidu (the indigenous Google) signals the ability to overwhelm Google, the Internet is now going to be available in languages that are not based on the Roman alphabet. While there might be high-wire-type espionage involved in Google v. China; we have another example of the spectaclist economy in the acquisition of Friendster. Remember Friendster? Yeah, it's huge in Southeast Asia, apparently.

The commodification of your memory. This is the problem with piracy and with social media. As the spectaclist economy develops we will continue to delineate what is the appropriate use of appropriation. Perhaps we have a precursor in the French language and the practice of vergonha? While in France this led to near-linguicide, the same won't be true for digital piracy. The Internet requires this free transmission, not because "content is king" but because the Internet sine qua non, as Debord stated it, "The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification [....] it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness [....] the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation."


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