pirate philosophy in (and for) the digital university

Some notes on Gary Hall’s Pirate Philosophy, a book I found more thought-provoking than any I’d read in some time. The podcast above is an interview I recorded with him a couple of months ago. 

  1. The forgetfulness of technology which critics like Stiegler argue afflicts contemporary thought also applies to the narrower world in which such criticisms are made. Theorists and philosophers, as well as academics as a whole, have “forgotten and repressed the technologies by which their own work is not only produced, published and distributed but also commodified and privatised (not to mention controlled, homogenised, and standardised) by for-profit companies operating as part of the cultural industries” (p. 12). This forgetfulness could, I suggest, be read as a corollary of what Bourdieu called skholḗ, the condition of distance from the world, an escape from it necessary in order to think it. If the conditions for skholḗ are being systematically undermined within the accelerated academy, an orientation to systems of production, circulation and engagement represents a central vector of reengagement with the world.
  2. We need criticality rather than paranoia, to invoke Sasha Roseneil’s useful distinction, with Hall’s theoretical commitments often inclining him to the former register rather than the latter. Criticality in this sense entails a practical “emphasis on the potentiality of the present, in all the complexities of our implication in its creation and re-creation” in contrast to a register of paranoia in which analysis is inflected through the sensation that things are bad and getting worse. As I understand the notion of paranoia here, it reflects a fundamental intolerance of ambiguity and ambivalence. What is at stake is recognise the positive and negative inherent in our condition, holding both in the same frame while looking towards the potentiality of the present and the ameliorative possibility latent within it for our collective future. This leads us to construct a world of perpetual co-option and insidious normalisation, with regression and retrenchment lurking behind every putative gain. My claim is not that Hall falls into this, the enormous array of innovative and practical projects he’s collaborated on reveals this not to be true, but rather that his analysis does.
  3. The way Hall critiques what he sees as “philosophical complacency and thoughtlessness” in reengagements with these systems, characterised by “predefined – and sometimes only superficially understood – ideas of copyleft, Creative Commons, open access, and open source and of the differences between them” (p. 12-13) seems unfair to me. He recognises the performative contradiction in making such a critique within a physical book published by a university press. Yet this contradiction seems tellingly under-theorised, a tension that remains on the level of the singular individual to be recuperated through piratical acts of surreptitious open distribution, rather than something which informs the overarching account of the place of the academic as cultural producer within the digital university. These faltering, perhaps thoughtless, steps towards a reengagement with the world reveal the entanglement of these figures within precisely the same systems that he (and myself) operate within. I want to theorise degrees of entanglement, ranges of co-option, which I think remains impossible unless we draw on other conceptual resources.
  4. These systems of production, circulation and engagement have individualism encoded into them. Hall resists “a theory that could be too easily sold, blogged, and tweeted about as my original work, intellectual property, or trademark” which would serve to “reinforce my own expertise and position in the academic marketplace, and thereby gain advance in the struggle for attention, recognition, fame, authority, and disciplinary power” (p. 19). But there’s an suppressed voluntarism implicit within this, as if the ascription of authorship reflects nothing more than the aspirations of an individual to claim that authorship, rather than being a systemic feature of the digital university. This can be evaded, but it can’t be avoided.
  5. Reclaiming this agency serves a crucial analytical function if we are to explain how “the requirement to have visibility, to show up in the metrics, to be measurable, encourages researchers to publish as much and as frequently as they can” (p. 30). But we need to reintroduce the agency of others at the same time as reinscribing our agency in the analysis. Not in the sense of the liberal individual, but rather as the quotidian subject. The living, sleeping, hoping, dreaming, embodied person who gets up every day and sometimes gets bored. This is the agency which academics are often so blind to, the person who performs an occupational role within an organisation, an employee in relation to employers, whose relationality extends far beyond the job they take too seriously.
  6. Claiming we should avoid paranoia should not license naïveté. There are hugely important questions we need to ask about digital capitalism’s transformation of the university, see for instance Hall’s discussion on page 34-37. My point is that we should be precise about the mechanisms through which their influence operates, the implications for scholarly practice and the transformations taking place. No one account can do everything, but even if we’re remaining at a certain level of abstraction, we should try and lay the groundwork in a way amenable to future investigation. My claim is that the largely absent agents within Hall’s account leaves technological change framed as an intrusion from ‘outside’, engendering a tendency to slip into the register of paranoia. This tendency is one that engaging with Jana Bacevic’s work has left me newly aware of.
  7. Academic authority is undergoing a profound change within the digital university. The image of the lone scholar motivated by a “desire for pre-eminance, authority, and disciplinary power” (a quote from Stanley Fish) who seeks to “make an argument so forceful and masterly it is difficult for others not to concur” (p. 58) seems obviously antiquated. Yet the academic scene is dominated by over-producing figures who have come to represent brands in their own right. We’ve seen a transition from authority grounded in mastery to authority grounded in dominating the attention space. My point is not to suggest the former was a simple matter of intellectual merit, far from it, rather a transition from authority being a matter of meeting socio-epistemic criteria to authority being a matter of socio-epistemic efficacy. Nonetheless, as Hall points out on page 64, the book lingers on as something which grounds this authority. Could the book be seen as a transitional object, to which academics feel a fetishistic attraction, while we make a transition from the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy to the Facebook Universe’ as Hall put it in the interview?

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