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Re: <nettime> "Dark Fibre" review
t byfield on Sat, 29 Mar 2003 11:29:32 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> "Dark Fibre" review



d.cox {AT} mailbox.gu.edu.au (Thu 03/27/03 at 11:20 AM +1000):

> Key among these is the still crucial global nettime list, which continues
> to be the testing ground for cyber theory and politics globally. There is
> Fibreculture which is an Australian variant, and myriad other net lists and
> societies whose development and character Lovink examines with the careful
> eye of the cyber-anthropologist. This is a cool, distanced, level-headed
> appraisal, not a rave party style celebration or heady utopian tract of the
> sort once popular at the Internet's first appearance in popular culture by
> breathless poster-boys like Douglas Rushkov.

i haven't sat down and read _dark fiber_, at least not in its incarnation 
as a book; i did spend a while with it in a bookstore. since a lot of it 
appeared in 'streaming' format over the last few years, i've read quite a 
bit of it anyway, as have many nettimers.

how accurately geert describes other lists like fibreculture, i don't know. 
certainly, the tone of the book's discussion of these lists is, as you say,
cool, distanced, and level-headed; but when it comes to the fairly lengthy
treatment of nettime, i think that tone obscures the fact that the treat-
ment is something very different. that's not too surprising: it's a memoir,
after all, even if it presents itself (or is received) as some other genre.

the main organizational principle of the section on nettime seems to be a
'heroic' discourse that either can't or doesn't acknowledge other ways of
thinking about the events _DF_ describes. these various stances, of which
geert's is just one, were defined over years of discussion and debate. some
of them were public (i.e., onlist), but many were private (among the exten-
ded moderator group and, as it was only 1/16-jokingly called, the 'zentral
kommittee'). like many debates, these were 'asymmetrical' in the sense that
there was disagreement even over the basic references and ideals, let alone
the conclusions they might lead to. 

in order to understand this, something else geert wrote -- in the debate 
about rhizome a few months ago -- is very helpful:

     I am not sure if the subscription model is the right one. Ted
     Byfield is right when he notices that Rhizome is jumping from one
     model to the next. However, nettime itself provides no answer at
     all. The nettime project in my view has come to halt a long time ago
     and has transgressed into an ordinary majordomo mailinglist only
     model which is indeed free of cost. To critisize Rhizome from that
     position is a bit too easy. I do not agree with Mark Tribe's
     financial strategies but at least he trying to figure out what is
     and what is not working. Nettime and other 'free' projects have
     never even tried to employ people or think of legal structures with
     which grants could be applied, partnerships created, books published
     (apart from Readme!) and pdfs sold, t-shirts or coffee cups,
     whatever commodity you can imagine. The 'free' position, adapted
     from the hackers culture, easily creates a position of superiority
     because it is very hard to question or critisize the voluntary hard
     work people like Ted put into the project. 

one reason it's hard to criticize is that 'people like ted,' rather than 
consenting to the 'heroic' model of nettime, advocated a very different
set of ideals, which aren't reducible to a cartoonish derivative of some 
hacker ethos. like _DF_, the account above leaves a lot out -- tellingly,
the latest nettime reader, _NKPVI_, which unlike the wretched festival
of ambition that attended _README_, was low-key by design. and, in point
of fact, there have been debates about 'institutionalization' and about
legal structures as well. for example, a while ago geert suggested GPLing
the nettime archive, but the moderators rejected the idea because (a) we 
don't have the authority to modify others' rights to their writings, and 
(b) such a license would make the archives much more vulnerable by assimi-
lating widely distributed rights under a license that permits commercial 
exploitation (and other things). these are just a few examples of the some-
times furious debates -- over *years* -- about what nettime could be or 
should be, and how. 

so, while there's definitely some merit to the way _DF_ defines a certain
'heroic' period in nettime's past (the present is much more bland -- but
so's the net), it's also really tendentious. but it's hard to respond,
because doing so pretty much requires debating on that 'heroic' terrain.
and even though i've helped to run the list just about every single day 
for over five years, it seems better to think of that contribution in more 
modest terms -- as a service to others. don't get me wrong, i'm not making 
out like i'm some paragon of humility -- far from it, as even my critics
will agree. :) there are other ways to think about nettime than what i saw 
in _DF_; but they -- or at least some of them -- don't lend themselves to 
being immortalized in a book put out by MIT.

so _DF_'s account isn't at all, as you say, the calm, measured work of a
'cyber-anthropologist.' on the contrary: it is, as they say, a nineteenth-
century solution to a twenty-first-century problem -- History presented as 
Great Men, Battles, and Speeches. (nettime's certainly seen its share of 
the latter two...) but nineteenth-century history collapsed when confronted 
with histories grounded in the working classes: for example, the work of
the _annalistes_, who offered very different histories that emanated from
the collective experiences and artifacts of entire populations. in my ad-
mittedly partisan view (and at least i admit it), a similar kind of ten-
sion is at play in _DF_'s History of Nettime, on the one hand, and the ab-
sence of other histories of nettime, on the other. that's why, in geert's 
email i quoted above, he dismissed other views as merely being some fuzzy-
headed idealization of the 'free' that's been 'adapted from the hackers 
culture.' it'd be dishonest to claim, after having been exposed for years 
to that kind of rhetoric and ethic, that it didn't influence how i think 
about nettime. but, by the same token, i don't think it's all that honest 
to dismiss others' stances with such a 'lite' critique. i should say that 
i don't think geert explicitly does this in _DF_. but it's implicit -- 
maybe even *very* implicit -- in that account. as he said in the rhizome
debate:

     The nettime project in my view has come to halt a long time ago
     and has transgressed into an ordinary majordomo mailinglist only
     model which is indeed free of cost. 

so, if the project is over, there's no need to attend to stances taken
after the 'heroic' period has come to an end: everything else is just a
footnote, right? maybe it is for the milieu that made up nettime's core
when it was a handful of rads, but for literally thousands of others i 
don't think it has been. and so we end up with a droll, modernist dilemma: 
was nettime 'a passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in 
time,' or *is* it more open, to the point where it 'transgresse[s] into' 
-- horrors! -- 'an ordinary majordomo mailinglist'? but that formulation
is very reductive -- and reductive, again, in a tendentious way. there
are infinite shades of gray between a brilliantly naive meeting of deeply
committed weirdos at the venice bienale and 'an ordinary mailing list.'
and over the years, this list has explored more of them than geert's ac-
count admits. again for example, _NKPVI_ wasn't a 'failure' to build on 
_README_: it was a positive and pragmatic choice -- based on a proposal 
that came from outside of the moderator group, and an editorial process 
that was 100% open to the entire list -- to put together a volume of 'pro-
ceedings' that accurately reflected what nettime really was.

despite lots of hype to the contrary, an 'ordinary majordomo mailinglist' 
is mainly what nettime always was anyway. there was a time when the open-
ing of 'the [ex-]east' coincided with a lot of excitement about this new
thing called 'the internet.' look what happened. and there was a time when 
it was a badge of pride that nettime held 'parasitic' meetings at certain 
kinds of conferences. guess what? those conferences have fallen into the 
same kind of rote formalism and repetition that forms the basis for cri-
tiques of how nettime has developed. let's be a little honest: to criti-
cize nettime as 'over' is a general critique masquerading as a specific 
critique. to think that it could have transcended these circumstances is 
to indulge in romanticism. (cf. my remarks above about nineteenth-century 
history.)

this all feels very puffed up, and in a way it is. but, again, the 'asym-
metry' of these debates makes it hard if not impossible to explain them
fully, because doing so would involve dredging up archives of private
mail and, ultimately, engaging in debates that necessarily take place on
terrain that privileges the very insular and destructive fights that _DF_
lionizes as the 'real' nettime. sorry, but in the balance there's *much*
more value in the collective force of the contributions to the list over
the last four and a half years than in paul garrin's transparently dis-
honest attempt to hijack nettime by cloning the subscriber base and shov-
ing propaganda down the throats of 800 people. but the 'heroic' account
in _DF_ does just the opposite.

but again, _DF_'s account speaks of some very fundamental questions. but 
in order to lionize those fights, geert's accounts generally, and _DF_ 
specifically, turned a blind eye to the quieter efforts that helped to 
extend some of those ideals beyond a historical curiosity into something 
that still exists, even if it seems like a ghost of headier times.

if i remember rightly, geert sent me the section on nettime for comments
before he submitted the manuscript of _DF_ -- so i feel a bit weird say-
ing these things. but, for reasons i've made clear and for other reasons
that are less explicit -- basically, the fact that his 'heroic' discourse
was itself a source and object of tension in the debates i noted -- i had
very little to say. some of those tensions were still too close, and, any-
way, it's his book. but even if he hadn't i'd feel a bit weird anyway, be-
cause the one thing i haven't said -- and it really must be said, because
it's true -- is that nettime wouldn't exist in *any* sense were it not for
his stunning efforts. but much as geert noted that the sheer mass of ef-
fort i've put into helping to run run nettime makes it hard to criticize
my contribution to the list, his own heroic romanticism makes it hard to
criticize his contribution to the list. ultimately, nettime nees both.
but, as felix (who has poured years of effort into the list as well) noted 
several days back in a moderator statement about the war, 'nettime is not 
an island': the only reason it needs either is because the rest of the 
world needs both.

cheers,
t
-
it's not made for great men

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