Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Seminar 6 Clare Birchall Position Statement

Thoughts on Dissemination

Clare Birchall

Contemporary Culture, Kings College London

To accompany this final seminar in the series, I wanted to ask what media form would be best suited to the dissemination of the outcomes from a seminar series on the subjects of transparency, surveillance and privacy. The blog on which this position statement appears has been the medium of choice up until this point. There is also a special issue of Big Data and Society in the pipeline, as well as a documentary and a Vine being developed. Announcements have been made over listservs and commentary via Twitter. Traditional media outlets, too, have been turned to in order to communicate the very prescient concerns of this network. The final seminar is dedicated to discussing dissemination and outputs.

In this position statement, I want to think about the same issue from a slightly different angle. Running alongside my pragmatic concerns as a co-investigator with how to achieve impact and maximum outreach, I want to think about the role and limits of revelation in public life as well as the ways we can experiment with media forms to highlight the problematics inherent in the ‘objects’ we study.

Jodi Dean insists that revelation and transparency are beside the point. “All sorts of horrible political processes are perfectly transparent today. The problem is that people . . . are so enthralled to transparency that they have lost the will to fight” (2002: 174). She calls for “decisive action” as remedy. Alasdair Roberts makes a similar argument: “The significance of Abu Ghraib,” he writes in this context, “may also lie in the extent to which we overestimated the catalytic effect of exposure” (2006: 238). For him, democracy has to involve the responsibility of the public to act upon the information it apparently has a right to. Jeremy Gilbert asserts that any tendency towards transparency “has to go beyond the mere telling of secrets and become real acts of what we might call . . . ‘publication,’ or ‘publicity,’” (2007: 38) which involves the politicization of an event or issue – making them objects of debate, discussion, and intervention. While coming from different political angles, all of these writers insist on the need for action, decision, politicization, to accompany transparency measures, exposé, and revelation. Something has to ‘happen’ because of the new information and data released into the public sphere.

If we call on the language of Jacques Rancière, we could say that “the distribution of the sensible” has to alter because of the new space such information and data takes up. Rancière’s distribution of the sensible is an aesthetico-political settlement. It is, in his words:

a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time. (2004: 12-13)

The distributive regime determines what action, reaction, and thought is possible in any given situation. It is political precisely because in every ‘distribution of the sensible’ equality is either undermined or affirmed.

A distribution determines “those who have a part in the community of citizens” (7); it “reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed” (8). Equality is when those without part, the unrepresented, come to take part; those without a share, have a share. In a process of subjectivisation, this involves refuting the subject positions one is ascribed by the system, and finding a name or identity-in-relation that will enable full participation and recognition – akin to the work the term ‘proletariat’ once performed. An instantiation of politics based on equality, then, is when demands for a new division and sharing of the social whole are granted.

In this way, the Snowden revelations or the Panama Papers potentially alter the distribution of the sensible, changing what can be known, but the revelations can always be absorbed into the white noise of communicative capitalism, be contained by various discursive manoeuvres, or prompt only weak tweaks to a robustly inequitable system before any new division has taken place.

In light of this, it might not always be desirable to reach the most amount of readers or audience. It might, rather, be preferable to reach readers in particular ways or at particular times to maximize attention and the chance for action. Such an approach to dissemination means keeping in mind two things:

1)     the confluence between form and content;
2)     the political economy of media forms.

To take the first of these, I’d like to briefly describe a project I devised with the help of my collaborator, Pete Woodbridge. Having put on a colloquium concerned with the politics and practices of secrecy, I wanted to disseminate recordings of the talks and sessions in a manner that did justice to the theme with which they were concerned. Pete and I decided that we wanted to emulate the experience of the secret. To do so, we “leaked” an instruction on listservs and social media to visit a website and enlist for more instructions. For those who signed up, a message was secreted to them with instructions on how to find and decrypt the talks online and the necessary passwords. The instructions self-destructed, erased themselves before the viewers’ eyes. The secret was briefly revealed. We also made the data available on a torrent so that files of the talks were distributed over the network like fragments of a secret. If users downloaded the files as a torrent onto their computer, they were emulating the secret societies that the grandfather of secrecy studies, Georg Simmel, wrote so much about.

In terms of the second point, it is necessary as academics engaged with the politics of transparency, that we self-reflexively consider the political economy of the publishing and distribution networks we engage with. The links major academic publishers have with ethically dubious enterprises has been well documented by Ted Striphas, Gary Hall, Janneke Adema and others. Though we all have to work within the constraints and demands of modern academic jobs (not least the REF in the UK), it is important to place the ethics of publishing above metrics. With these concerns in mind, and working with like-minded colleagues such as the aforementioned Gary Hall and Janneke Adema, I have been involved with various alternative publishing projects such as Liquid Books (an experimental series of open-edited and open-access books); Living Books About Life (a series of open-edited and open-access books funded by JISC); and Open Humanities Press (an open access publisher focused on critical and cultural theory that acts on principles of access, diversity and transparency).

In practice, an ethical publishing means, whenever possible, fulfilling the following goals:

·       working on a non-profit basis – all OHP books and journals, for example, are available open access on a free gratis basis, some of them libre too;
·       using open source software – OHP journals generally use either Open Journal Systems or WordPress;
·       operating as a collective - of theorists, philosophers, researchers, scholars, librarians, publishers, technologists etc. OHP operates as a networked, cooperative, collaborative, unpaid multi-user collective;
·       gifting our labour – rather than insisting on being paid for it. We see this as a means of helping to de-center waged work from its privileged place in late capitalist neoliberal society;
·       and working horizontally in a non-rivalrous fashion - OHP freely shares its knowledge, expertise and even its books with other presses such as Open Book Publishers at Cambridge, Open Edition in France, and the Hybrid Publishing Lab at Leuphana University in Germany.

I mention all of this by way of raising the following questions: What form of dissemination will do justice to the concerns of privacy, transparency, and surveillance? And: What would ethically informed modes of transparency/revelation/dissemination look like? How can we ensure that our revelations will be actionable? That they will alter, for the better, the distribution of the sensible?

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