November 23, 2003

It is over but really it is not

Category: Anthropology — Biella @ 9:58 am

Yesterday I presented a paperThe Political Agnosticism of Free and Open Source Software and the Inadvertent Politics of Contrast in a panel that Chris Kelty and I organized at the American Anthropological Association Meetings

There were many questions about the nature of politics in America that we raised in the discussion which were really interesting. One question which I have been trying to wrap my head around is how to treat the relationship between culture and politics in America right now. Anthropologists used to treat culture as something seperate from the political and then around 30 years ago there was a critique from within the field that said, “woah, we need to pay attention to the political in the cultural.” The conclusion from this critique and rightly so was that politics is always there in the cultural. This though is a conceptual argument and not historial one, and it is changing historical conditions which interest me.

But can it be that given historical conditions, that culture becomes some sort of “front” for politics (not in a bad way). That given the fact that politics is not really seen as a viable method for change, that it becomes hidden (not in an ideological sense) within or really emedded within culture so that now the relationship between culture and politics is different in certain cases for historical reasons?

I wrote my paper taking seriously the claims of many free and open source developers that FOSS is not about politics. I linked this to a free speech sensibility that is made particular through the pragmatics of programming, and the social context of Internet use. I wanted to link their political agnosticsm with a greater pollution of politics in American society more generally which I did not do (because I don’t know how to yet and there was no time) but I raise it in a footnote as a concern:

Of course there are specific histories and labor involved in these movements (FOSS does not move by magic and I can only nod to them here) but the fact that FOSS is coded as politically neutral allows for a greater type of movement and resignifications within the American political sphere, a sphere that itself allows and disallows for certain types of movements. Thus just as relevant is how this process reveals what is not and what is possible within the American political landscape.

But I did not have much of a handle of what I meant by the American political landscape. While not trying to make a broad claim about American politics, one thing that is noticeable is a sort of unwillingness to engage explicitly with things political or that “politics” just seems like a dirty activity that people don’t care to engage. Why the pollution of politics? and now how has culture as a vehicle for politics changed the way that politics are enacted?

A question that Chris Kelty raised at the end of his paper helped to clarify how I might think of the political right now. While I focused on the sort of political neutrallity of FOSS, he looked at the political distancing of the Creative Commons who choose to use a language of culture over politics.

He asks:

The creation of a “commons”–whether in intellectual property or any other material—necessarily implies the need to make rules about its use; and in complex societies, no one makes rules de novo. Instead they operate within other larger frameworks, and try to create small pockets of technically and legally defensible activities. So I end on this question: if process of designing commons—such as writing software and copyright licenses—is as essential a part of peoples’ lives today as I suggest it is becoming—should we call it “culture”?

So this made me think that though politics and culture are always co-constituted in some sort of way, this relationship is at historical level changing. FOSS and Creative Commons are just 2 examples of how culture is being deployed as a vehcile for politics worldwide (see Sahlins 1999 for a great article about this.)

But the question becomes I think how and why can’t the political be recognized or be made explict. Is this for strategic reasons, cultural, of just because politics works in some sort of weird Saussurian way in which now you tend not to designate X as being political, but the meaning of the political only gets constitued through a field of difference. That is the sign of politics gets signified by virtue of its difference from other signs. Or is culture as a trope a more powerful vehicle for making political claims?? A combination of all the above?

I think I need to re-read Sahlins.

Shalins, Marshall “Sentimental Pessimism” and Ethnographic Experience: Or, Why Culture Is Not a Disappearing “Object” in Daston, Lorraine, editor Biographies of Scientific Objects

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