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<nettime> Interview with Wolfgang Sützl: Sharing –
Cornelia Sollfrank on Thu, 24 Nov 2016 04:21:15 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Interview with Wolfgang Sützl: Sharing –


Sharing – the rise of a concept

Cornelia Sollfrank in conversation with Wolfgang Sützl
Liverpool, 5 November 2015

Cornelia: Your recent research has revolved around the notion of
“sharing,” and I would like to get a better understanding where this
interest comes from and how it is embedded in the larger context of your
work.

Wolfgang: This interest in sharing has resulted from my research on
media activism. In the course of a research project at University of
Innsbruck, we realised that “sharing” plays an important role in many
activist communities – while its actual meaning seems to be rather
vague. It obviously relates to the then very topical phenomenon of file
sharing, but there seemed to be other implications as well.

Media activism was not just brushing media against the grain, but also
intervening in the socio-economic structure of the media and tech
industries. This involved questioning the notion of scarcity. If you can
make digital content available to many people for free, why not do it?
In an interview I did with Eben Moglen, a co-founder of the Free
Software Foundation, he asked: if you could provide everyone with enough
food to eat by pressing a button, what would be the moral argument for
denying people that food? Activists realized that digital media had this
potential of functioning outside an economy of scarcity. To examine such
questions, we organized a conference, Cultures and Ethics of Sharing, in
Innsbruck, and later I co-organized an ICA preconference on digital
sharing with Nicholas John (Hebrew University). Since then my research
has been mainly concerned with the conceptual dimension of sharing.

Cornelia: Before we talk about the phenomenon of sharing in the context
of digital networks – which obviously is the field in which it has been
rediscovered and has proliferated most in the twenty years – I would be
interested in learning more about the intellectual roots of this
concept. You have looked at a number of philosophers who might be useful
in order to conceptualise the notion of sharing – one of them being
Georges Bataille and his idea of the excess… Wolfgang: Bataille is of
particular interest in this regard, because he developed outlines of an
anti-economy that starts from surplus rather than scarcity. He focused
on what we do to expend resources, rather than make them. He felt that
Marxism was not radical enough, buying into the notion of scarcity which
is at the heart of the capitalist economic model. He defined a boundary
to economic exchange, with expenditure being that which can no longer be
exchanged, that which no longer yields anything and cannot be recycled
into additional growth. He calls this “The Accursed Share,” which is
also the title of the book he wrote in 1949. And just like Bataille’s
expenditure, sharing is not something that can be used towards growth.
The concept of a “sharing economy” does not make any sense.

Cornelia: What also comes to mind when thinking about sharing is its
embeddedness in Christian culture. How much is the positive connotation
of sharing due to this religious origin?

Wolfgang: The New Testament contains many references to sharing, the
most widely known is perhaps the Feeding of the 5000, where Jesus and
his followers share what seems to be a ridiculously small amount of
food. This happens after Jesus tells his disciples not to send people to
the surrounding villages to buy food, that is, he stops them from
engaging in economic exchange. What seems key to me here is not so much
that by sharing a large crowd is fed from a few loafs of bread and some
fish, with everyone getting enough. The point is that there are several
baskets full of food that remain uneaten. There is a surplus that comes
from sharing, and it is, just like Bataille’s “accursed share,” a
surplus that cannot be recycled into further growth. This is a model of
an anti-economy that also underlies the demand to offer the second
cheek. The positive connotation of sharing, its “niceness,” comes
perhaps from the idea of equality and togetherness in sharing. This is
very different from the formal equality enjoyed by participants in a
market, and the hierarchies that are created or strengthened through
almsgiving…

Cornelia: Together with Bataille and his notion of expenditure, the
multiplication of loaves and fishes suggests a parallel to what we have
been experiencing with digital networked media: abundance instead of
scarcity. I would be interested in how you think these two schemes
together.

Wolfgang: Bataille applies the word excess to practices that waste
energy without return, including sacrifices, luxury, war, and
non-reproductive sex. To him, wealth is a matter of expending what
cannot be recycled into growth, and it is up to us what form this
expenditure has. In principle, digital networked media can be seen as
excessive in this way because digital objects are infinitely
reproducible, so that in a sense there is always too much, there is
always more than we can productively use. However, the commercialization
of the internet has led to the paradoxical situation where this
excessive availability fuels the growth of Facebook, Google, etc. A few
years ago, media activists started virtual suicide platforms that
allowed users to delete their profiles, a kind of sacrifice, if you
will, that is reminiscent of Bataille’s thinking.

Cornelia: If we continue this thought, and bring in the notion of
sharing, it becomes necessary to distinguish more precisely between
sharing and exchange as an economic transaction. Could you please
generally explain the difference of these two concepts?

Wolfgang: Unlike exchange, sharing is not reciprocal. It does not
consist of the mutual give-and-take that forms the structure of
exchange, both of economic exchange, as in a market, and of symbolic
exchange, as in the giving and returning of gifts, words, or other
symbols. Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) showed the
importance of symbolic exchange in capitalism, and takes the Marxist
critique beyond the merely economic. Bourdieu has also developed a
critique of symbolic exchange around his notion of cultural capital. But
they both stop at the point where a formal representation of reciprocity
is no longer possible, the point Baudrillard later theorized as
“impossible exchange,” in his book of the same title.

Cornelia: It appears to me as if symbolic exchange was somewhere between
economic exchange and sharing…

Wolfgang: Almsgiving, like gift-giving in general, is a form of symbolic
exchange, which in Bourdieu’s thinking affirms and stabilizes social
hierarchies. Symbolic exchange determines who is on top and who is at
the bottom. By tipping a waiter you, and the waiter who accepts the tip,
agree on this. This verticality of symbolic exchange explains why giving
and receiving of gifts in relationships between people who want to be
equal, such as the modern couple, is often such an awkward affair,
sometimes resolved by giving up the idea of a gift altogether.

Baudrillard argues that symbolic exchange has many forms that support
the functioning of economic exchange—for example, the law and the state,
which intervene when economic exchange fails, as in bankruptcy,
unemployment, or by setting base rates. This too shows how symbolic
exchange is bound up with political power. Organized crime, black
markets, or state-controlled economies function predominantly in this
way.

Cornelia: That means we actually remain in a sort of economy with the
gift-giving, while, as you have already indicated, sharing is something
that leaves the realm of economic relationships behind altogether. I
think this is where we should continue talking about the philosophical
concepts which you are exploring in order to develop the concept of
sharing. And I’m thinking of phenomenology, for example.

Wolfgang: Once you realize you cannot theorize sharing in terms of
exchange at all, you face certain problems that are similar to
theorizing everyday experience. Sharing is indeed an everyday routine,
as such it does not have its own truth, or at least it does not stand
out as an object available to scientific investigation or to the
aesthetic privileging that happens in art. Duchamp’s ready-mades were a
response to this difficulty of the everyday. What would an artwork look
like that is not set apart from the profanity of everyday experience?
His answer was, perhaps like a urinal, perhaps like a bottle rack.
Phrased in ontological terms, Heidegger undertook a similar enquiry in
his Being and Time (1927), where he sought to understand being through
everyday Dasein, the simple fact of our being-there that is always
already assumed, whatever question we may ask.

He uses the term Mit-sein or being-with, to understand being as always
already shared being. According to him, there is no way to understand
the meaning of being other than as shared. As I find myself in the
world, I have already shared this world with others. Being cannot be
separated from sharing, and the others come into appearance as others
because of this sharing. This is why sharing in the commons, as
described by Ostrom, defines a political subjectivity. To me, it also
offers a point of departure for understanding why an economy of exchange
on the way to totalizing itself, as in the current advance of
neoliberalism, has such difficulty with the notions of otherness or
difference. Exchange must, in order to function, render otherness or
difference meaningless – turn it into a “farce” as Žižek says. The only
meaning that it leaves for otherness is the unrestrained negativity of
random violence, which is just another caricature of a quest for
meaning.  Cornelia: What is not nice about sharing?

Wolfgang: For one, once we understand sharing as a limit to economic
expansion, an anti-dote to the economic principle itself, it questions a
deeply held belief of Western culture. It represents an outside that can
be scary because it cannot be regulated by law – because the law is also
an exchange operation. Pirates, who did not recognize the law of the
sea, had a strong sharing culture, which came back to life in digital
piracy. Also, at the moment of sharing, we cease to be as self-contained
individuals, and enter the sphere of intimacy. There is a vulnerability
that comes with sharing that is expressed in the problem of
“oversharing” on social media, where users offer intimate information to
others they do not really know. Because of this, sharing as a practice
was traditionally limited to smaller communities. And finally, we also
share things like the exhaust fumes and noise of our cars or the
crudeness of our advertising billboards. It’s not always nice.

Cornelia: Now, both of these concepts, exchange and sharing, exist in
parallel – offline as well as online. I would like to ask you to
describe and unravel this coexistence with regards to digital networked
media and also talk about the – maybe intentional – confusions that are
emerging from this.

Wolfgang: Today sharing is often confused with exchange because of the
way we use the word in online communication and the hype around the
sharing economy. This confusion is an easy one to make because of the
very nature of sharing, but there is also an obfuscation that is part of
the business plan of the digital media industry that considers sharing
as a profitable form of “customer engagement.” The confusion is easy
because sharing is a communal phenomenon: it is because our being is
always already a being-with-one-another that we can share and experience
meaning. This is also why Jean-Luc Nancy can say “meaning is the sharing
of being.” But in corporate social media and the sharing economy,
subjectivities are formed through structured forms of communication that
providers prefer to call “sharing,” benefitting from the anti-economic
potential of the digital (its excess) and the connotations of niceness
that come with sharing. These subjectivities are shaped to match
business plans, they form around the users’ status as customers, as
subjects of exchange. But meaning cannot be exchanged, only shared. This
is why so much of social media communication is either commercial, or
trivial, as in the classic cases of cat videos. There is an erosion of
meaning through the dominance of exchange, and a lot of sharing of
meaningless content, because what matters to the provider is the profit
that comes from customer engagement, from making users do things that
affirm their status as customers. But this is due only to the
commercialization of digital networks. It is not inherent to digital
technology, as for instance the case of Wikipedia shows.

Cornelia: To conclude our little conversation, one could say that
“sharing” as an essential form of being with others has gained a new
dimension through digital technology. At the same time this new form of
sharing in the realm of digital files and knowledge is dependent on a
technology which is totally embedded in the cycles of capitalist
production, i.e. exchange. I think here is one crack in the concept.
Another friction I see in the fact that neoliberalism expands its logic
of economisation into all possible domains of life and, through the
sharing economy for example, has started to blur a clear distinction
between sharing as a way of being or becoming subject and economic
exchange. What is at risk here? What is it that drives your research?



Wolfgang: What drives me is the belief that with a better understanding
of sharing we can gain more clarity about the limits of exchange. This
is necessary, because the current neoliberal rationality sees a frontier
instead of limits. This frontier is a temporary boundary to be pushed
forward, a site of emerging markets and venture capital. Helped by the
rise of corporate digital media and the disappearance of a serious
alternative to capitalism, this frontier has advanced into the political
sphere, into subjectivity, and into rationality itself. Wendy Brown
offers a compelling analysis of this process in her latest book, Undoing
the Demos (2015). What is at risk here is the possibility of forming
meaningful political communities in the most basic sense of the word,
and along with it the possibility to communicate anything political.
Therefore, an improved understanding of sharing may help formulate a
political argument against neoliberalism, which is the only type of
argument that can be expected to be effective. And I agree, for an
argument to be communicated, communication channels are needed that will
not instantly turn the sharing of ideas into an economic transaction. We
can still learn from the tactical media movement in this regard, and
perhaps with the dominance of corporate social media and their business
strategies, tactics is even more important than before. Digital media do
still offer a real, non-utopian possibility of sharing, and simply
remembering that is a first step. The fact that criticism of the sharing
economy is becoming more widespread is also a positive sign. It opens
some space for a real discussion of sharing.
 
Cornelia Sollfrank is an artist and researcher living and working in
Berlin. She is associate researcher at the University of Dundee (UK) and
was until recently guest researcher at Aarhus University (DK). The
combination of conceptual and performative approaches in her work result
in the production of research-based practice and the writing of
practical theory. Main fields of work are copyright and intellectual
property, feminism/cyberfeminism, self-organisation and commons. Her
current project Giving What You Don’t Have (GWYDH) explores artists’
contributions to the production and maintenance of commons. Website:
http://artwarez.org Wolfgang Sützl is a media theorist, philosopher, and
linguist. He is based at Ohio University’s School of Media Arts &
Studies (USA). He is a visiting faculty at Transart Institute (USA/DE),
and at the MA program in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of
Innsbruck (A). His chief research interests concern media theory, media
phenomenology, media aesthetics, mass communication theory, and the role
of media in conflict. He is currently working on a book on the
phenomenology of sharing, and a textbook on the evolution of media.
Website: http://wolfgangsuetzl.net

First published in APRJA – A peer-reviewed journal about _. Excessive
Research  (2016) http://www.aprja.net/?p=2883
 
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