Swans Commentary » swans.com July 16, 2012  



The Digital Potlatch That Needs Defending


by Edmund Berger



(Swans - July 16, 2012)   In 1923, Marcel Mauss, a French anthropologist with distinctive socialist leanings, published a now widely influential work with the simple title of The Gift. In this study, Mauss unveiled a striking reinterpretation of how ancient societies functioned, honing in on the rather abstract concept of the "gift" as the central factor. For Mauss, gift exchange played an important role that provided a means for the circulation of goods and commodities as well as a communal social cohesion -- simply put, ancient societies relied on something other than the hallowed systematics of capitalism for development. Few examples of this, however, stand out in Mauss's work more than the idea of potlatch.

Potlatch had been a special type of ceremony practiced by many Native American populations in the northwestern regions of the continent, taking place at family gatherings such as birthdays, weddings, funerals, and rites passages. It involved feasts and dancing, but most central was the act for which "potlatch" gained its name: the act of giving away one's properties to other members of the family and tribe. In this system, a true "gift economy," goods still circulated throughout the society, and prestige was indeed gained. The difference here with the Westernized economics of capitalism is that social standing came not from accumulation of goods, but from how much an individual or family could give away.

The ceremonies, sometimes identified as a form of anarchic, primitive communism, quickly resonated with those seeking alternative structures to oppressive capitalism. The infamous scholar of decadence and deviance, Georges Bataille, had written about potlatch and other forms of gift economies in his work The Accursed Share, which went on to inspire numerous thinkers involved in French critical theory. Guy Debord and the Situationists also held a deep infatuation with the idea, referencing it frequently in their writings. For Debord and his cadres set on occupying their time with the cumbersome task of updating Marxism at the dawn of the postmodern consumption-driven age, dipping into the notion of the potlatch must have been a theoretical watershed. His fascination with it had been long running; he had nicked the word "Potlatch" as the name for the journal of the Letterist International, an outfit of avant-garde proto-Situationists to which he belonged. And now, with anarchist anthropologists like David Graeber (one of the early drivers behind Occupy Wall Street) discussing and writing about it, potlatch has once again begun to trickle into current left-wing vernacular and discussion.

While potlatch's descendants can be found today in the watered-down traditions of potluck, I believe that there is currently unfolding a new kind of potlatch in the passageways of the Internet -- a digital potlatch, never-ending celebrations of diversity and creativity. The platform for this potlatch is online file-sharing. I'm most familiar with the world of music-sharing blogs, and will use that as my example here, but it does not have to be limited to that. With the advent of newer technology like 3D printing, which can replicate finished goods with ease and fairly inexpensively, it's entirely plausible that things like copyright and patent laws will be broken down with ease, especially when combined with the possibility that schematics and blueprints of items can be shared globally through file-sharing. File-sharing acts as a nucleus for a digital community, a small framework that quickly flourishes into what essentially amounts to an ever-growing cyber society. It's difficult to see where the actualized urban landscape ends and the digital community begins; while these blogs exist in the void of cybernetic networkings, they link together people, places, cultures, and experiences instantaneously regardless of physical location. For this reason, they are dripping with hybridizations and potentialities, helping to acknowledge the existence of concrete countercultures that can spin globalization to their advantages.

In a world that is saturated with commercialization and pop consumer ethos, digital communities play a vital role by establishing a space where society's participants can actually partake in developing culture, instead of relying on the assembly line-manufactured sounds and images pouring forth from the industry's immense combines. The gifts shared in the music communities are works of art, odd, obscure, and esoteric only because their sounds don't obtain circulation on the money-dominated radio stations, receive accolades on televised award shows, or draw crowds to corporate-sponsored arena shows. Instead, they're the past, present, and future rolled into one. Strange German experimental music, French troubadours, pulsing beats from London's underground dance scenes, hazy Jamaican dub, scratchy blues tunes from figures forgotten in all but legend, gritty poets from the ghettos of the world, primitive child rappers from Colorado, or blue-collar workers from Milwaukee who get off work at the factory, crack open a beer, detune their guitars, and just make noise. It's an utterly global experience, a transnational avant-garde that delivers globalization in ways that neoliberalism will never be able to. It achieves this state because unlike the landscape of the wealthy, the boardrooms, and the bureaucrats, it puts people in charge. It allows people to put their work out there into the ether to be distributed, plucked up by passersby, and moved along.

As with all cultures, slangs and jargons develop. Monikers are given, and people are commended on what they share. They help each other out. It has its direct antecedents in the cassette culture that flourished across America in the late 1980s and '90s, which propelled hip-hop and indie music into full-blown phenomena, before, of course, they became movements to buy into for corporate executives, commodified and profits extracted. The blogger his or herself becomes an auteur of sorts; it's common for them to go beyond simply sharing files and create compilations of music to give to people, cultivating a soundtrack for everyday life or to make visible connections that were perhaps unseen before. One excellent example of this that I've come across is a blogger-constructed album of music from Germany and Nigeria in the 1970s. The music chosen was radical, reflecting the rampant political strife and left-wing consciousness that permeated the undersides of each nation's civil societies in that time period. Not content with leaving it simply at that, the blogger chose to show the aesthetic similarities between Germany's experimentations and Nigeria's Afrobeat. Hearing this is an exciting and enriching experience, and it proves another important function of the blogger: the role of a cultural and political historian, writing stories from the bottom-up instead of the top-down. In all aspects of their work, these people, believed to be criminals by those in the establishment, are conducting an essential role by preserving these artifacts, to give them a circulation and an audience. It makes them available to be passed down for future generations to enjoy, and to exist outside the sphere of capital.

But a defining characteristic of capitalism is that it conceives of the world as a singular state, a global Empire where nothing exists outside of its territory. As such, the potlatch ceremonies of old became targeted for eradication by European colonialists. Bringing with them the capitalist system that had already destroyed the commons, and the religious-spawned Puritan work ethic to give the economic system an ideological underpinning, they saw potlatch's methods of distribution to be backwards and uncivilized, a "vice" and cultural "degradation" that was simply inconceivable. Potlatch was banned in Canada in 1884, with a punishment of incarceration for two to six months for practicing the ceremonies. America followed suit in the early 1890s.

The same is happening in the world of music blogging. In January of 2012, the US Department of Justice seized the domain names of Megaupload and shut the Hong Kong-based filing hosting Web site, eradicating with it countless files of music, film, literature, and other cultural nuggets. Much of these were indeed industry-produced goods, but a critical blow was struck against the small communities that use sites like Megaupload to exist. With the Web site's founder, New Zealand resident Kim Dotcom, facing the long arm of American law enforcement and potential extradition for trial, other filing hosting Web sites began to crack down on bloggers using their space to host copyrighted data. Accounts have been suspended, sending the bloggers scrambling to find new places to share their files so that the potlatch can continue.

The subsequent rhetoric from the blogs reflects the growing disenfranchisement with the current capitalist system, as well as their cronies in the world's governments. The language utilized is telling: "Should Britain have allowed Iran to extradite Salman Rushdie for his blasphemous Satanic Verses?" writes one blogger. "Because that's basically what we're looking at here. One culture's laws trumping everyone else's." Another blogger, lamenting the recent take-down of the well-known "Holy Warbles" site, was even more verbose. "May the industry burn. It is the enemy of art, of culture, of humanity... to hell with this charade of capitalism that would rather rape the Internet than have industry adjust its practices."

Not all, even on the leftist side of the spectrum, see the potlatch of MP3 file sharing as the benign practice that the bloggers conceptualize themselves as engaging in. Portia Seddon, for example, argues that capitalist technique can be found as a hidden transcript within music blogging. "After examining MP3 music blogs more deeply, I realized that almost all of my participants were white, middle class, heterosexual males," she writes "...my relationships with bloggers were thus mediated and complicated by particular intersections of race, gender, class, and sexual inequality." She continues further by adding that "The advent of the blog as a space of participatory authorship has, as DJ Chief Boima has noted, undoubtedly preserved recordings that have been in danger of disappearing, and widened the scope of listeners to these recordings. Nonetheless, it implicates DJs and MP3 bloggers in a neo-colonial system of raiding African music history and material culture."

In making these observations, Seddon is turning her back on the incredible potentials of these endangered autonomous spaces. It is true that blogging is not being done at large by subaltern peoples, but to chastise the global middle classes for engaging in these practices is to retreat to a cultural isolation that, at its core, promotes the logic of domination inherent in temporal stagnation. Instead, we should focus on how this medium can effectively transform the binaries existent inside the cultures of the world's privileged people. The music blogging communities are hotbeds of flourishing multiplicities, where music and culture are not standardized by industry and divided according to signifiers; they are instead thought of as an organic whole that can be used to experiment openly and generate new experiences and thoughts. It's a place where an ancient practice is being revitalized. And for these reasons, it is dangerous to the moneyed status quos. As we look for ways to build better tomorrows, we need to acknowledge these spaces and defend them, lest we suffer through yet another tragedy of the commons.


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About the Author

Edmund Berger is an independent writer and researcher living in Louisville, Kentucky. He is currently at work on a book detailing the history of American democracy promotion. He can be reached at Edmund.B.Berger [at] gmail.com.   (back)


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Published July 16, 2012