December 4, 2007

The Liberalism of Anthropology and the Anthropologies of Liberalism

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Liberalism — Biella @ 1:40 pm

In a few years I want to organize a panel for the AAA called “The Liberalism of Anthropology and the Anthropologies of Liberalism” that opens the door to discussing the role of liberalism in the general anthropological project (notably in trying to breed tolerance) and how anthropological work, especially of the last twenty years (although really since its inception) has also worked to critically disturb the liberal project (in many ways, but including debunking the myth of the liberal subject and voicing the limits of liberal tolerance). I want to say more about the ways in which anthropologists have walked this line, but I have to read for tomorrow’s class and more than anything else I wanted to permanently jot this down so as to not forget my title.

September 3, 2007


Category: Academic,Liberalism — Biella @ 12:17 pm

In the last week, I have been witness to and part of many conversations and probably one of my favorite ones was about coffee. My friend reasoned that coffee is as wonderful as it is because of its dependability (unlike, for example, your relatives). You know that for a moderate sum of money, you can drink a drink that makes you happy, alert, and, for some of us, allows us to face the rest of the day on an even keel. It is pure comfort that derives from a form of almost ritualistic dependability.

This morning, as I was sipping my coffee, I came across a short blog post by Stanley Fish who certainly does not make me as happy as my morning cup of joe, but I do admire him for his dependability and consistency when it comes to reporting on matters of liberalism. For over 20 years he has dependably written on the quandaries and limit of liberal political ideology and his most recent installment, which focuses primarily on a new book by Paul Starr, is no different.

Well, his conclusion strikes just a little differently than the tone of some of his previous works.

In the past (or perhaps in some of his longer academic works), Fish’s solution to the problem of competing ideologies is that there are no solutions, just incommensurable ideologies and you gotta sort of duke it out, and the strong man/woman/group wins (see Terry Eagleton for this characterization of Fish’s work. But the ending to this piece is subtly different, a tone and stance I rather prefer:

“So again, what to do? Lilla’s answer is pragmatic rather than philosophical (and all the better for that). All we can do, he says, is “cope”; that is, employ a succession of ad hoc, provisional strategies that take advantage of, and try to extend, moments of perceived mutual self-interest and practical accommodation. “We need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principles.” Now there’s a principle we can live with, maybe.”

What I like about his ending is that it acknowledges there are times when compromise is possible, where a common meeting ground can be forged, however provisional these may be. As someone interested in the politics of consensus and accommodation, I think it is important to recognize that human beings are not simply molded by one set of values but are are often dwelling within various systems (of sometimes contradictory) values. And it is because of this multiplicity that forms of accommodation and consensus emerge and can emerge, signaling a more hopeful politics that derive not from abstract adherence to precept such as tolerance, but from the far messier realm of actual life experience.

December 13, 2006


Category: Academic,Liberalism,Research,Tech — Biella @ 5:56 am

By informing us of a new list, WikiChix Joe Reagle offer’s some insight as to why gendered spaces don’t always sit easily alongside or with liberal ideologies of equality:

Formally excluding anyone from the larger community prompts questions of: is this fair?, is this discriminatory?, shouldn’t we ensure the common space is accessible rather than spinning off groups?

Of course, much of liberal theory since it hones in on “formal” dimensions of equality, does not do so well with accounting for or accomodating those forms of biases and exlcusions that are either informal (i.e. cultural) or often structural (i.e. economic).

December 12, 2006

The Moose is On the Loose and a little Usenet History

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Hackers,Liberalism — Biella @ 11:11 am

So I am back to le study of le hackers, trying to write a super-secret paper that I will present in January and then of course I am back with and to my beloved book (which for now has the following title: “Freedom’s Pleasures: Hacker Practice And The Limits of Liberalism” but I am sure it will morph, endlessly).

As part of my transition I just finished re-reading one of my favorite articles on the history of Usenet: If I want it, it’s OK: Usenet and the (outer) limits of free speech by B. Pfaffenberger (available here for download.

When I released one of my dissertation chapters where I addressed the phenomenon of the Cabal, Bryan was nice enough to write me and point me to his article, which also examines the existence of Backbone Usenet Cabal.

The artile, which provides just the right mix of history and commentary, analyzes how a free speech ethic came to be valued on Usenet and the ways in which technological and social factors co-mingled to facilitate and dampen the free flow of expression.

You are provided with classic Usenet quotes like:

Usenet is like a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea–massive, diffi-
cult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling
amounts of excrement when you least expect it. (Spafford, 1993b)

You learn about the early attempts to control spam by the likes of “CancelMoose:”

In 1995, a secret, shadowy figure known as the CancelMoose
devised a spam-canceling program called a cancelbot.”

And then in the end, he provides his challeng to one of the dominant STS theories of the time, SCOT:

“It should be noted that this picture is at odds with the predictions of the social construc-
tion of technology (SCOT) theory (Pinch & Bijker, 1987), in which the outcome of a period
of technical controversy is ascribed solely to social factors. Underlying SCOT’s dogmatism
is a justifiable aversion to technological determinism, the doctrine that a technology’s con-
tent leads irresistably to predictable social consequencesÐ a doctrine that is simply the re-
verse of SCOT’s insistence on social causation. Two wrongs, as we were taught in kinder-
garten, do not make a right. What we see in the history of Usenet is a contingent outcome
that is shaped neither exclusively by social nor by technical factors, but rather is best under-
stood as a long process in which contesting groups attempt to mold and shape the technol-
ogy to suit their endsÐsometimes successfully, and sometimes not. They are as likely to be
blindsided by technological developments as they were to succeed in changing the system
to meet their ends. As this article attests, it is one thing to create new technologies with a
coherent social vision, and it is quite another to control the way it grows and develops.”

I could not agree with him more. I think what he is highlighting is that if we dip into the historical record, we have instances in which technology can trump the social and vice-versa (and often instead it is a co-mixture), so in the end, understanding the impact of technologies is less about theories of technology and more of a historical question…

November 21, 2006

A spirited debate on the liberal frame of mind

Category: Academic,Liberalism,Politics — Biella @ 10:16 am

This morning I came across Michael Berube’s response to Jodi Dean’s critique of Berube’s book What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and Bias in Higher Education… It is a fascinating interchange worthy of a close read or two but without first-hand knowledge of the book, I hesitate to pledge my allegiance on either side. But I will hopefully to do so. The only thing that surprised me was that there was no mention of the grand master of the critique of liberalism, Stanely Fish… Not sure why but he seems like an obvious place to start.

These ppst happened to really captured my attention this morening given I found them after reading the Chronicle of Higher Education piece Input or Intrusion? which examines the recent attacks against scholars deemed as “anti-Israel/pro-Palestine,” including against Nadia Abu El-Haj who happened to be on my dissertation committee… It will be very interesting to see how this all pans out and I am sure many of us are watching closely.

And as an added bonus, here is a student’s thoughtful perspective on the Berube book.

April 20, 2006

Oh Canada, our neighbors who don’t like to sue

Category: Books/Articles,IP Law,Liberalism — @ 12:07 pm

So, as readers of this blog know, I am deeply enmeshed and invested in a project that examines the cultural face of liberalism through such avenues as law, technoscience, and medicine. As part of this endeavor, I am interested in signaling and understanding the tensions in liberalism within one context (such as IP), one nation (as in the US) or across times and places.

Because I am going to this conference on Invention and Authorship at Case Western (am already in Ohio partaking of my family and the beautiful budding flowers of spring), I am revisiting these ideas as I chomp through all the marvelous papers that were pre-circulated.

And the theme of tensions in liberalism arose palpable during a visit at the CCA with Laura Murray an English professor who teaches at Queens College and runs the impressive Fair Copyright website, which every Canadian scholar should comb through, carefuly.

We read a her First Monday piece Protecting ourselves to death as well as another fascinating piece on Canadian copyrightTaking User Rights Seriously.

The session and her talk were quite interesting and my first real introduction to copyright’s life in Canada. Unsurprisingly, given the different role of the state as protector of certain rights (like health care) and a certain healthy suspicion of the US and its policy (and this is nicely explored by Murray), copyright is distinctly configured, with lines of similarity and diffferences. For example, IP provisions are not part of the Constitutional charter, the equivalent of fair use (“fair dealing”) is more circumscribed, universities often cower at what is perceived threat (she told us an amazing story about Simon Fraser’s draconian copyright policy that implored students to get permission for *every* citation, sigh), yet a a recent Supreme Court case came down very favorably strong for user rights and public interest.

By the end, it was clear that while there are similarities (and these will grow, I imagine, with “harmonization” via WIP0. TRIPS etc. but for reasons I state below, perhaps not), the life of IP is textured uniquely. And while there are differences in the law, point blank, some of the more interesting differences follow from non-legal conditions or legal factors quite independent of IP. And these are worth pointing out because they also give us a unique vantage point to really get at the motor behind SO much of American law, in general, and IP law, in specific.

During her visit, Laura Murray raised three (probably more but I am going by memory here) important differences, which were further elaborated during the disucssion:

1. Due to how governments congeal (through coaltions) and how they execute change, (apparently legal change/policy moves more slowly), this had led to change whose viscosity is more like molasses than oil in our country and often has worked in the favor of public interest and user rights in IP.
2. The Media still works in a more robust way than in the US in that it will shame and, shame some more, the government over things like IP so that they act as a constraint.
3. And in comparison to the US, the culture of litigation/lawsuits has a shadow of a life compared to the US.

So in fact much of the policy in Canada has little to do with the actual law of IP but with other legal factors or extra-legal factors. On top of this, it also made me realize that since things are stalled and since activists do and often compare things with their southern neighbors, I also wonder if activists are better positioned to actually intervne in this field than we are in the US, where things move quite fast, the media in general does not act as a lightning rod of shame (except for the Daily Show and Colbert Report, but I am not sure, yet, if we should count those as media) and even if the media does not shame, they rarely present IP as a pressing societal issue. Given these conditions, it will be very interesting, to the development and changes in IP in Canada following the pressures to harmonize.

Finally and this is perhaps to obvious to merit attention because it is signaled through the recognition that US law is largely case law, but lawsuits do truly generate so much of the law and are one of the central contexts underwhich we culturally understand (as I mean the proverbial citizenry “we”) the law. If anyone out there knows of any good articles/books that explores this, especially from a cultural, critical, or political perseptive, give me shout out… I would like to delve more into how this acrimonous and expensive (and potentially in some cases empowering) contextual matrix shapes US law.

March 9, 2006

Courses on Liberalism

Category: Anthropology,Liberalism — @ 10:54 am

So one fun part of being on the job market is that you delve into some serious course constructions. I have come up with 4-5 courses and I will soon start to put some online to get some feedback. Since most of my recent posts here have been on liberalism and neoliberalism, here is one of the my proposal courses, called The Cultural Life of Liberalism. It is still under development though I like the overall structure of it. I would appreciate any suggestions.

Yesterday I had the chance to briefly meet Rutgers Anthropologist Angelique Haugerud who is doing some really fascinating work on paraody and protest (on, for example on the The Yes Men). And I just noticed that she is teaching a graduate seminar on Globalization and Neoliberalism, so of course, I will mine that syllabus when I have a chance to look at it.

March 8, 2006

On Liberalism, Anarchism, and Humanism

Category: F/OSS,Hackers,Liberalism — @ 9:48 am

So I have to say that David’s and Scott’s responses have really been engaging, and of course, have sparked a tremendous amount of ideas and responses. On the whole I tend to agree with the responses. When it comes to Raymond’s politics, Scott says it quite cogently. Raymond’s formulations, he writes, “serve similarly as an ideological guidepost for the corporate opensource folks; I’m not certain that places him at the opposite end of the liberal spectrum, but he certainly does put language to work distancing himself from Stallman and his unruly band of ideological tub-thumpers.” Can’t agree with this more. Raymond opened up a space by which a series of important translations and network extensions (in the Latourian sense) could unfold, ones that placed certain aspects of open source closer and within neoliberal territory.

That said, because of the work of Lessig as well as others like David Bollier and Siva Vaidhyanathan (other prominent spokespersons, again in the Latourian sense of the word, that translated the meaning of open source and brought it to new audiences) have brought the discourse of open source away from neoliberal territory. Using the very language of open source, they use the example of this mode of social, legal and technical production to argue against neoliberalism, to argue that the market should not determine the logic and meaning of all forms of production and sociality. So to grapple with the meaning of open source discourse is also to take stock of the the various, sometimes contradictory ways it has been deployed.

And Scott’s point about retaining an idea of the difference between the positions of spokespersons and those of developers on the ground is an important one. And I don’t think the disjuncture is one inherent to spokespersons/discourse vs. practice but should be framed as a historical question. My feeling is that at one point in history (between 1998-2000), Raymond monopolized the discourse of open source and garnered a lot of respect from many developers. As the open source genie has been let loose and has been taken on by other interested parties, the story is now more textured and complex. There is less of an alignment between his position and those of many developers. After about 2003, I met many developers who got sick of Raymond “speaking for them” and there were different discourse, such as that offered up by that of Lessig by which to draw from and understand the significance of open source. And many now use the language of Lessig to conceptualize the political significance of their technical labor. And this has already started to shift. Now that Creative Commons has existed for a number of years, we are starting to see more critiques of Creative Commons from some free software advocates. So again whether or when the viewpoints of dominant discourses match with or don’t with the views of developers, I think, is less of a question of the inherent nature of discourse vs practice but how we the power of discourse shifts within the tides of historical change.

It seems like a hanging question still remains from the comments and it is a call for clarification over what I mean by the relationship between neoliberalism, IP, and trade treaties. In his comment, David writes:

“I would have thought that trade treaties that regulate an international global system of IPR law as totally contrary to the spirit of neoliberalism. In effect it is the granting of special monopoly rights to a distinct corporate group of private actors. Hardly the shrinking of the state! In fact it causes parts of the state to be co-opted by private interests… but thats another line of research…”

He hit the hammer on the nail on this one. However, the assumption here is that neoliberalism is free from a series of deep contradictions. And this is what is nice about David Harvey’s recent account on Neoliberalism. His aim is not just to show the varied convergences behind the ascendancy of neoliberalism but to take seriously the contradictions that are part and parcel to neoliberalisms’ practical articulation. And now I am just about to self-plagiarize from the paper I just presented in Indiana to explain what I mean:

“Neoliberalism is in the first instance” writes Harvey “a theory of political economic practices that proposes human well-being can be best advanced by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free markets, and free trade” (2005: 2). As Pierre Bourdieu previously theorized, this renders neoliberalism a “utopia of a pure and perfect market” (1998) that denies the political and social conditions of its making. What Harvey brings to light is that when we unravel the conditions of its making, there are a collection of contradictions that lie between neoliberal theory and its practice. While neoliberalism champions the rights of individuals, attacks most forms of monopolies, and relishes in building a world free of government regulation so goods, and especially capital, can cross national boundaries with little or no friction, in practice, active state intervention and regulation, are everywhere needed to realize certain forms of free trade.

And the global regulation of IP law, I think, is one of the best examples of the contradictory underpinnings of neoliberal practice (which Harvey causally mentions but does not fully address. It is unpacked within a neoliberal framework in Susan Sell’s Private Power, Public Law). So once we acknowledge these contradictions, I think, the “harmonization of IP” is one of the most salient, tangible products of the contradictory terrain of neoliberalism.

Also I agree that to collapse anarchism and Marxism is to overlook crucial differences, and as you mention “the state” is that entity that gets in the way if we try to merge them. I see, however, Anarchism and Marxism in serious conversation with each other though (not only because some seminal Anarchist writers like Bakunin were pretty well versed in Marxist theory and influenced by it) but because both make the ideals of mutual aid, human liberation, egalitarianism as central and both seek to build a world free from labor alienation, exploitation, and private property. Marxism values the role of that the state can play in this historical development, while anarchism sees the state as part of the problem. But despite some serious differences, there are many productive theoretical affinities between the two.

Added to that because of these commitments, of course, I would never map liberalism on the same axis with Marxism or Anarchism. If I were to visually map them, it would be as cross cutting axis that run in serious opposition to each other, and end up in very different places, but there is one point in the middle where they meet and it concerns some version of freedom and humanism.

And I got thinking in this way after reading Negri and Hardt’s Empire. While I have a lot of trouble with the book, the part that most strongly resonated with me was the section where they talked about the birth of immanence, humanism, and freedom during the pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment period, a birth that conceptualized humans actors as endowed with capacity, to some degree, to control their worldly destines (a point also explored in the works of Foucault and many others of course). As they explain, “Humans declared themselves masters of their own lives, producers of cities and history and inventors of heaven. …the affirmation of the powers of this world, the discovery of the plane of immanence.” (p. 70, 71). To the extent that Anarchism, Liberalism and Marxism can be compared, I think, it is in relation to the birth of a certain version of Humanism and Freedom. How to realize freedom and the content of the meaning of freedom certainly do differ so that you can’t collapse them, you can’t even conceptualize them in the same camp, but you certainly can see how there may be some affinities due to their connection to Enlightenment reconfigurations more generally. And because hackers use both liberal and anarchist discourses of freedom, I am forced to bring these together, even if, they sit in tension with each other.

March 5, 2006

Neoliberalism continued

Category: F/OSS,Hackers,Liberalism — @ 2:34 pm

Scott Dexter over at Decoding Liberation wrote a good response to my post below on neoliberalism and hacking. Between David Berry’s response and this one, I am due to give another one. The two comments have really made me rethink some stuff so hopefully I will have another reply soon.

February 27, 2006

A third way: freedom, open source, and populism

Category: Anthropology,Ethics,F/OSS,Hackers,Liberalism — @ 2:09 pm

I just finished reading an article written and recommended by David Berry that he mentioned on my blog: The Contestation of Code: A preliminary investigation into the discourse of the free/libre and open source movements. The piece does a marvelous job at running a fine comb over the terms that dominate the discourses of open source vs. free software and in so doing, brings into stark relief the differences between the two philosophies. For example, while free software promulgates a host of terms like code, freedom, power, progress, community, and rights—knotting them together into an ethical package that includes community, public good, ethics, and Enlightenment ideals of progress—open source uses a different set of meanings to animate some of these same categories and places them into a different package, one that includes the language of choice, markets, rational choice, individualism, and efficiency. And as Berry argues persuasively, Eric Raymond hitches these within an evolutionary framework that “seeks to give deterministic causes” (p. 79).

I tend, however, not to treat these as two movements, “that differ radically in their underlying philosophies” (p. 67), but more as movement that exhibits two positions that maps to a continuum rather than a stark dichotomy; and these reflect the differences and points of tension that are always part and parecel of any shared movement or tradition.

Elsewhere I have written about hackers, in general, and free and open source software, in specific, as a means to examine the heterogeneity of the liberal tradition, all too often treated in unitary terms. While free software draws on the communitarian end of the liberal spectrum, OSS sits at the other pole. According to Raymond, OSS’s virtues follwo from the fact that the enjoyment of programming and the reputation programmers derive from doing it well–these are simply better incentives to produce good software than a salary. While Stallman envisions a community maintained through shared norms and values (and sits more closely with folks like Jefferson and Mill and also perhaps has anarchistic influences), OSS hearkens back to thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Mandeville.

That said, the reason I don’t see these as radically distinct, however, has less to do with these two positions, which really do, as Berry shows so well, diverge into different ethical territory, but because at the level of ordinary social life, most developers I met and interviewed, even those from the Debian project (the most ethically committed to free software), expressed and dabbled in hybrid discourses that included language from both camps. For many of these developers, free software development was the more efficient thing for their technical art, and also held moral overtones. For many, free software/open source could guarantee a more open market. For many developers who chose open source, they chose copyleft licenses because they were personally motivated and compelled by deep seated ethical beliefs, but were eminently uncomfortable with passing on such moral to others. Others really disliked any whiff of moralism. Many developers were very uncomfortable mapping this realm to any politics outside that of software freedom and when they did, they inhabited a “recursive” political reflexicity as described by Chris Kelty. But many free and open source advocates did move comfortably between these two poles, sometimes choosing one label over an other one to make a point or to emphasize one facet of what one label could only thinly capture.

Berry also claims that “Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, is the exemplar of the vision of Raymond and the OSM,” (p. 81) which I think can be thought of in a slightly different way, perhaps as a third way. First, his rise to prominence as the leader of the first large scale free software project came well before the birth of open source discourse. Certainly, while Stallman was a political crusader salvaging culture, Torvalds was a technical pragmatist who worked from home and was receptive to feedback from peers through newsgroups. But by following his hobby and using a free software legal scheme, Torvalds accidentally inaugurated a unique global volunteer project of “collective invention” whereby programmers could contribute bug fixes and improvements that, if deemed worthwhile by Torvalds would be incorporated into new versions of the Linux kernel. In the process of rewriting the kernel, Linus became a leader, coordinating the contributions of all those who were willing to volunteer their time. His innovation was as much social as it was technological. And to be more specific, he inaugurated a strain of populism, that was later carried into and accentuated into other projects such as the Debian project. Over time, Linux as a project did move more toward the open source camp, but still retains a healthy doses of its early populism that defined a new era in UNIX hacking from its predecessors (such as with the Berkeley Software Distribution camp) whom operated along a more elitist logic. Below is one older Debian developer who is describing contributing to BSD before the Linux era:

There was a process by which you wrote some code and submitted in the ‘I am not worthy, but ‘I-hope-that-this-will-be-of-use-to-you supplication-mode’ to Berkeley and if they kinda looked at it and thought, oh this is cool, then it would make it in and if they said, interesting idea, but there is a better way to do that they might write a different implementation of it.

While the Berkeley Unix gurus accepted contributions from those who were not already participating on the project, it was difficult to pierce the inner circle of authority and become an actual member of the team. When Linus Torvalds and Ian Murdock developed their own projects (the Linux kernel and Debian respectively), they did things differently than the earlier cadre of Unix hackers by fostering a more egalitarian environment of openness and transparency.

I think the most interesting claim brought on by Berry is that open source discourse is a neoliberal one. On the one hand neoliberal language and open source language do share many similarities, that of choice and free markets most notably, but I think open source, especially as it is carried out in the vicissitudes of social practice, falls short of neoliberal ideology (but, to be sure, can be easily changed into those terms and thus I think of them more as holding affinities).

Because while a neoliberal worldview unabashedly promotes the privatization of every last thing, even open source states there must be limits. And just this claim, alongside a healthy and somewhat contagious (in that good sort of way) social practice of collaborative development, undermine neoliberal ideology and especially neoliberal trends in IP law. As Siva Vaidhyanathan has written elsewhere “the brilliant success of overtly labeled Open Source experiments, coupled with the horror stories of attempts to protects the proprietary model have added common sense” toadvocates fighting for reform and change. The way open source has functioned, at least it seems to be, is more than less, as a break, a limit point to neoliberal trends. I am still open to thinking more about open source as part and parcel a neoliberal creed, but I would like to see more of those discursive and sociological links and if we are to call that neoliberal, what do we call the massive transformation of IP law that have been intimately linked these modes of regulation to trade treaties and the like? I guess I am not ready to tag open source as neoliberal as that term helps to explain other trends in IP law.

If you can’t notice from the post, I am in the thick of major dissertation revisions for a book manuscript so am gladly reading more about free and open source to get me through some of my hitches.