I enjoyed the Japan in a Digital Age conference today, keynoted by the cultural anthropologist Ian Condry. He took an ethnographic approach to the decline of the recording industry, drawing on fieldwork in Tokyo, Boston, and Berlin to illustrate how musicians are adapting to the steady unwinding of the familiar commodity form for the production, circulation and consumption of music.

That was the promise at least but there was little detail about the social and economic conditions of cultural producers. His argument was a theoretical one with a bit of ethnographic detail thrown in to illustrate his claims. In essence, Condry attacks the notion of value as something to be found at the moment of exchange, instead arguing that value is a complex phenomenon which waxes and wanes over time.

If we see the value of music as embodied in musical commodities, we obscure the vast undercurrent of social activity upon which this depends. This passionate activity seems to be a world away from the economic interests of the musical conglomerates. But this notion of ‘passion’ can lead us to construct  commodification as something inherently  destructive of social value, taking an activity undertaken for its own intrinsic value and subordinating it to an exchange relation. From this perspective, the evisceration of music as a commodity (such that the exchange-value tends to continual shrinkage) seems like an opportunity to liberate the craft of music from the tyranny of exchange, as well as the apparatus of audit and accounting which surrounds it.

However this simplifies the relationship between economic and social value, obscuring how the commodity form of music facilitates modes of social engagement with profound cultural value. In a nutshell: being able to make a living from producing your music facilitates a form of engagement with it that might not otherwise be possible. It could also constrain this, for instance by creating pressures to maximise sales even at the cost of cultural decline, but these cultural costs are contingent constraints rather than a necessary feature of the commodity form. What matters is the broader ecology within which this form is reproduced or transformed. The problem is the concentration of the existing music industry, rather than the organisation of musical production through making and selling work to an audience.

I suspect the dichotomy of closed/open is part of the problem here. When we see one form of closure eroding, this dichotomy can lead us to assume it will be replaced by openness. Whereas in reality we can see one form of closure (musical conglomerates) being replaced by another (musical streaming, sales and crowd funding platforms). This engenders a certain naïveté about the challenges of cultural production in the gig economy, made worse if you have too much faith in your own ethnographic immersion in musical scenes.

If you’re going to advocate for ‘free’ and ‘open’ as intrinsically valuable, it’s important to spend some time getting to grips with social ontology underlying these terms. It’s much trickier to grasp than it might initially seem.

The self as painting: we become who we are through repetition and representation. Encumbered only by our imagination and the culture in which we find ourselves, we craft ourselves through iterated projects of self-representation. We might find the materials available to us limiting, in which case we might seek out a more diverse palette of cultural ideas through which to express that which we are and wish to be. We might also seek to refine our technique, extending the range of our potential selves by expanding our capacities to represent them. But the process is fundamentally repetitive. We begin within constraints but once we start painting, it’s up to us what we do. The freedom exercised through this is one of redescription, in Richard Rorty’s sense, something which Roy Bhaskar once critiqued as relying on a ‘free-wheeling’ conception of freedom: it doesn’t hook on to the world, to the definitive ways in which things are at any given point in time, with all the constraints and limitations which this entails. 

Its appeal rests on the prospect of everlasting freedom. We can dispense with any one painting once we grow dissatisfied, throwing it away to restart in pursuit of ever richer and more vivid representations of our self. But there is an element of fantasy in this, refining our representation of self potentially at the cost of losing touch with the reality of who we are and where we are at any given moment. To craft the self as painting represents a private project of self-creation. It approaches the challenges of existence in an aesthetic register, one which cuts us off from our selves and from others in an ever-so subtle way, while holding out the (always retreating) promise of endless freedom in inner life, whatever the world out there holds for us and what we care about. 

The self as sculpting: through a sustained engagement with the material we find in our selves and our lives, we gradually produce the person we aim to be through our crafting of self. The process is subtractive, rather than additive. We select, refine and remove in a way that is path-dependent, often finding unexpected limitations which follow from the whole sequence of past choices we have made. The further we go in this process, the less room for manoeuvre we have because our form becomes progressively more concrete with time. To become who we are depends on what was latent with us, but how this comes to take the form it does depends on the world we have found ourselves in and how we have chose to make our way through it. 

We shape the clay but we do not choose it and our understanding of the range of possibilities latent within it will always be constrained by circumstance and experience. When the promise of the protean self is ubiquitous, tempting us with the idea that the only limit on who we can be is our imagination, the limitations of the clay can seem suffocating. But there is a freedom within these constraints. A profound, challenging and subtle freedom which refuses the reduction of existence to aesthetics. 

Attributed to Aaron Swartz, but the editor of his collected writings suggests this is a contentious issue.

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought
valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

A rope tightens breath constricted
No hand pulls this is self-inflicted sickness
Sickness self diagnosed without witness
Wish list grip fist the beggary of riches
A belly full fights never willingly
An empty stomach does not have the energy to finish it
Layers in between padded by a dream
Stretching for the means
Without thought of exhausting the seams
No space for indignity on the face of simplicity
A taste of sufficiency’s a belly full of lethargy
A dash of apathy a pinch of extacy’s a recipe
Serving up a feast for the beast of our treachery
Not sure if your getting celebrity’s out effigy
I hear just fine but I’m deaf to those next to me
Conflict it perplexes me
Cause out biggest battle
Is now we’re so free that we choose to be shackled

I’m stuck freedom lasso

[Verse 2]
This invisible strain of the human stain
Colors every brain, vein
Thus chained to another’s pain
We may not be the artist by we surely are the frame
We may just be the smoke but we cannot blame the flame
Strange is the fruit that nourishes not the vein
Yet we are odder still for we seek it like the rain
Nothing bounds out path yet we march perfect in lane
Whoever saw a tiger that desired to be tamed?
Reality defies nature does not know surprise
Yet the lesion of our season blinds even the eagle’s eyes
Spies dread not headlock tight as thread knot
Get lost why throw a bone to a dead dog?
This is not charity that is just sarcasm
That’s why we bite so hard and never bark at em
Spark at em’s insane
It’s play gather and prey
When even the mighty tiger
He desires to be tamed


[Verse 3]
They act as if it’s positive
Though it’s so obviously derogative
And even if you’re bobby
This is never your prerogative
It’s obvious we’re warriors
And crooked just like bobby is
But colleges and mockeries
Will never make a socrates
Apologies and robberies
They follow with atrocity
Sorrow and hypocrisy
Don’t make very good crockery
Watchin’ this it’s horror bliss
And one day I will promise this
The day the tiger wakes
That is the day of your apocalypse


In contrast to the scorn which Rorty’s name now provokes in some quarters, it’s arresting to see the esteem in which he was held by Roy Bhaskar in the late 80s, albeit in the context of a trenchant philosophical critique. He commends Rorty’s “eloquent critique of the epistemological problematic” but intends to argue that Rorty remains captive to this problem field in ways he himself fails to recognise (Bhaskar 1989: 146). In doing so, he advocates a philosophical post-narcissism which is capable of elaborating “non-anthropocentric pictures of being” through taking Rorty’s project of ‘de-divinisation’ and pursuing it much further than Rorty was either willing or able to do (Bhaskar 1989: 147).

His initial target is Rorty’s account of science, particularly his easy imputation of chronic success in “the prediction and control of nature”. In this claim Rorty reveals himself to have accepted Hempelian assumptions about natural science, in effect committing himself to a basically positivist account. Much of Bhaskar’s critique proceeds from systematically exploring the ambiguities which are entailed by Rorty’s failure to distinguish between the intransitive (ontological) and transitive (epistemological) dimensions of science. Once we begin to draw this distinction, Rorty’s constant invocations of ‘redescription’ come to seem much more modest in their conclusions, though Rorty himself fails to recognise this:

Thus redescribing(td) the past in a revolution way can cause(id) radical new changes, including a new identity, self-definition or auto-biography: but it cannot retrospectively cause(id) old changes, alter the past (as distinct from its interpretation). It is not surprising that Rorty should slip from transitive to intransitive uses of terms like ’cause’ – it is endemic to empirical realism, the epistemological definition of being in terms of (a particular empiricist concept of) experience. (Bhaskar 1989: 152).

Bhaskar’s point is not to impute anti-realism to Rorty, though the latter surely does come to this in his later work. For Bhaskar “the crucial questions in philosophy are not whether to be a realist or an anti-realist, but what sort of realist to be (an empirical, conceptual transcendental or whatever realist); whether one explicitly theorises or merely implicitly secretes one’s realism and whether and how one decides, arrives at or absorbs one’s realism” (Bhaskar 1989: 153). Bhaskar is in agreement with Rorty’s repudiation of the ‘Archimedean point’ outside human history and the notion of ‘correspondence’ as standing between world and language. However he finds it problematic, as well as internally inconsistent, for Rorty’s realism to adopt such a whiggish approach to actually existing science – imputing a continual extension of our capacity to ‘control and intervene’ with one hand while bracketing the philosophy of science with another. He shares Rorty’s anti-foundationalism and applauds his  “vigorous assault on its attendant ocular metaphors, mirror imagery and overseer conception of philosophy” (Bhaskar 1989: 157).

So what’s the problem? Rorty’s peculiarly positivistic stance finds expression in his assumption that an individual represents a closed system. Bhaskar addresses this point in a dense critique which I won’t attempt to summarise but is an astonishingly accomplished analysis which is worth studying in detail (Bhaskar 1989: 161-162). His attention is to better understand “A Tale of Two Rortys”: a tension which runs through his work and precludes him from offering either an adequate understanding of scientific activity or a sustainable account of human freedom. In essence he finds himself reproducing a linguistified version of the Kantian distinction between people as empirical selves and as moral agents. Rorty is attempting to combine a physicalism which sees individuals as closed causal systems, in which it is possible (in principle) to predict every movement of a person’s body by reference to microphysical states, with an affirmation of the discursive freedom of human beings.

However it is this freedom to ‘re-describe’ which is the cause of all the problems. He fails to distinguish between objects changing and requiring a new description and an unchanged object being redescribed. In this sense ‘redescription’ comes to be detached from the characteristics of the objects being redescribed. Yet this is central to Rorty’s account of human freedom:

Man is the describing, redescribing being. Among the entities man can describe in a new, and abnormal, way, is himself. By making a new, incommensurable description of herself ‘stick’, she makes it true; and thus ‘gives birth to’ (to use Harold Bloom’s term) or ‘creates’ herself – which is to say ‘overcomes’ her previous or past self. Moreover, only by describing herself in a totally novel way can she capture or express her idiosyncrasy, uniqueness – or rather achieve it, achieve her individuation – for anything else would reduce her to a (more or less complex set of formula(e), a token of a type (or set of types). Such radical self-redescription (which could be nicknamed ‘me-‘ or ‘we-‘ description) is the highest form of description. For not only does the redescription redescribe the describer; but in the process of redescription – of wining it, of making it stick, of achieving recognition for it – it makes the (re)description true; so achieving the identity of subject and object, by creating it. (Bhaskar 1989: 171)

On this picture we are left with a notion of freedom as “caprice, discourse, capricious discourse and creative discourse” (Bhaskar 1989: 173). Even this highest form of freedom within Rorty’s account, the possibility of ‘creative discourse’, falls short because it operationalises freedom in abstraction from the material dimension of social life. Rorty’s account makes it difficult to see how we could ever come to identify or transform structures which engender a diminution of human freedom. It also fails to recognise the constraining effects they may have on freedom even in his own narrow understanding of it. As Bhaskar observes, “it is now easy to see how the notion that ‘man is always free to choose new descriptions’ can encourage the voluntaristic position that man is always free to choose any description” (Bhaskar 1989: 176). Rorty’s discursive freedom should not be repudiated in and of itself but should rather be contextualised in terms of a much deeper sense of freedom and, crucially, a notion of emancipation which “depends upon the transformation of structures rather than just the amelioration of states of affairs” (Bhaskar 1989: 178).