Archive for the ‘Steal This Book!’ Category

Review: Digitize This Book

May 22, 2009

The question of access is totally political. Democracy, and to be clear we do not live in a democracy, needs an open environment to be possible. Without access to relevant information, we are incapable of both our highest self-development and informed participation in social questions. Today information is exclusive in its distribution. Decision making is also an exclusive process. In capitalist systems of government, the decisions that affect our lives are not ours to make, and the information on which those decisions are made is not ours to scrutinize.

New media has given the potential of broadcasting to everyone with internet access. This growing access has been revealing the limits of access, as well as the possibility of information distribution. It has called into question notions of authority, and the control of ideas. The lines between the private and communal right to ideas have been blurred. The control of ideas by commercial organizations has become an active question, the situation has become political. In Bolivia when private commercial organizations tried to control the flow of water, the question of the possibility of democracy in a country controlled by private interests erupted in a wave of social organization. And while information is not as important to life as water, the question of who controls the flow of substances necessary for human development in each case, nonetheless, is activating the political.

Digitize This Book!: The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now is a completely frustrating read. What are the politics of new media? And why do we need open access? Those  questions have radical implications. The title, however, with its allusion to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book!, is misleading. I had expectations of a freedom-loving-people-first radical “we” in need of open access, but, unfortunately, the “we” in the title refers to career-building professional academics.

And unfortunately the politics in this book limits itself to the institution. Hall delivers a book on using open access for professional political purposes. The idea of open access as it relates and presents the  possibility of free education and real democracy is the idea I’d have liked to see written out. But Hall didn’t do that. Hall limits himself to an academic discussion in a way that makes the book nearly irrelevant to anyone outside that world. I’ve been putting off writing up the book.  My reaction is to write off the academic world as career-minded, grant-chasing, intellectual conservatives, and while the academic world is definitely heavily populated by this type, of which Hall fits, the academic world is also all we’ve got. The main space left where thinking happens is the academic world. So writing them off isn’t really an option. This book of Hall’s is a disappointment for sure, but in it there are some points on which to get started.

First, there’s the difficult concept of a desire for changing one’s place in the order of things. This concept — and you can correct me if I’m wrong, or out of line – may not be a concept so much as a cognitive disorder; a desire for change without anything changing. Gary Hall seems, and he’s not an activist, to suffer the same affliction as a lot of activists. He wants a better world for himself — and others — without making a change in the world. Sure he calls the institution into question, but finds it necessary, it’s just maybe if he had a little more control over his work. This idea of a little change is something that needs to be thought through. Any change is a leap, a little change is a big change. In the case of institutional legitimation, where an author’s work needs to go through a series of controls, these controls can seem oppressive. Hall has found the process of publishing online can bypass these controls, but without the control, his status as a legitimate academic is at risk. Hall needs the oppressive control to exclude others and maintain his identity.

Hall conceals this return to a desire for oppression and control in the face of the possibility of freedom, in the terminology of Derrida. He uses Derrida as a cover, but also a legitimate currency. He draws on Derrida like one draws on a bank.

This is another starting point, the academic use of the names of our most radical thinkers as coinage. Hall does this on a number of occasions. The issue of legitimacy and authority, through drawing on the value of names. But the name becomes separated from the body of work, legitimating in this case a Cultural Studies critique.

Halls desire to maintain, in the shift toward digital publishing, the authority of print is just not a concern that anyone outside the university would have. It could be seen as similar to the grumbling of journalists, and Hall’s dismissal of the amateur is very similar but the question is New Media. What are the politics? What is happening to whom and how? But can an academic, especially one with an interest in career building, clearly think the university? How does the commercialization, the manipulating market forces on the practice of the university look to an academic? And in Hall’s case an “academic with no preconceived politics”? How much of this thought was forged in the free-market furnace?

On authority, and it’s similarities and difference to worth, an essay of Derrida’s is difficult to follow, and a book like Hall’s which trades on Derrida’s style and terminology is difficult in its counterfeit. The question of worth. It’s something to think about. No one is going to take the time to read anything I write. They might be interested in a quote from Deleuze. But Hall does something less. He drops names, Benjamin, Foucault, Deleuze, he drops these names without a direct reference to their work. Nietzsche  says something about those who use superlatives reaching beyond their grasp. And in this instance, the use of these names to legitimate his book, Hall completely steps out of his depth.

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