Theme Song for Our Time: SLF, OWS, CUNY AC

Serendipity.  Not too long ago, I’m reading through an email about OccupySFSU, a local OWS-inspired student action, and listening to my Old Skool playlist on iTunes when a tweet burps onto my desktop: CUNY Academic Commons is preparing to release their “Commons in a Box,” a quick, easy installation of their free, open-source collaboration platform.   As I click on my “save to delicious” bookmark, the chorus of Stiff Little Fingers’ punk anthem thrashes through my computer speakers.  Like the chance encounter on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella, Jake Burns’ raw, desperate voice brings into constellation, briefly, the logics that might connect these three envoys of culture, politics, and technology.

Alternative/”Is this the only life we’re gonna have?”

It all begins with negation.  1977.  The Troubles twist their stranglehold tighter around life in Northern Ireland.  The Provisional IRA launches its “Long War” against the British.  Protestant paramilitaries – - the UVA and UDF – - restart their random assassination campaigns.  The collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement revives political stalemate.  British pacification efforts – -  – - a post-colonial version of urban renewal – - transform Belfast and Londonderry into concrete-walled, graffiti-scarred mazes of “no-go” zones.  The Belfast working-classes are drowning in the wake of Britain’s economic collapse.  In the streets of Ulster, the 20th century isn’t just falling apart, it’s already a shipwreck.  The angel of history left the building long ago.

“Nothing for us in Belfast,” the song begins, invoking punk’s master-emotion of boredom but gesturing toward Belfast’s peculiar incitements to nihilism: “Take a look at where you’re livin’/You the got the Army on the street/And the RUC dog of repression/Is barking at your feet.”  Yet as the chorus makes clear, the song is less about anarchy or destruction than about resisting nihilism:  “An Alternative Ulster/Grab it, change it, it’s yours/Get an Alternative Ulster/Ignore the bores, their laws.”  “Be an anti-security force,” Burns yelps in the chorus, “Alter your native Ulster/ Alter your native land.” The intensity of the music – - it’s speed, it’s lack of polish, the strangled urgency in Burns’ voice – - testifies to hidden resources, creates a moment of possibility, bursts through the world-as-it-is and subsumes the listener, even if briefly, into some “Alternative Ulster”.

Another world is possible: this is the desperate hope that fuels the song’s anger.  It’s also the hope that fuels the Occupy movement.  As in “Alternative Ulster,” to grasp that possibility is not to spark a revolution, but to create a situation – - to imagine, assemble, and hack together “a new world within the shell of the old.”  Occupy will not become the “liberal” Tea Party.  It won’t molt into candidates, campaigns, and “capitol” gangs.   Its participants are neither naïve, nor dumb, nor recalcitrant.  For Occupy, the means are the ends and the process is the product.  Enacting an alternative world now supersedes planning or preparing for its incarnation later.  Like the Zapatistas who proclaim, “preguntando caminamos,” Occupy embraces history as performance rather than plotted narrative.  This negation of fatal time unfolds a radically alternative space.

Some might equate this kind of refusal with chaos or irresponsibility.  CUNY Academic Commons (CAC) instructs us otherwise.  CAC began with a similar refusal. Recognizing a need for community within and across CUNY’s 17 campuses, CAC chose the model of a “social network” over a “static archive.”  This decision, however, was really a decision about ends and means.  “An early suggestion was that the taxonomic structure of site resources had to be determined before the site itself could be built,” write George Otte and Matt Gold.  “This was tabled in favor of a design that would allow folksonomic structures of organization to emerge from the community itself, primarily through acts of tagging and categorizing.”  Like Occupy, CAC abandoned the a priori – - organization depends on self-activity and not on blueprints or org charts.  “Organizando caminamos”: we organize as we go along.   Taxonomies which direct and contain action give way to folksonomies – - mobile, dissipative structures of meaning created through participation.  CAC becomes a machine for generating alternative spaces.

DIY/”Grab it, change it, it’s yours.”

Stiff Little Fingers stole the chorus of their song from a Belfast punk fanzine.  Assembled by Gavin Martin and photocopied

Alternative Ulster 1977

by a friend with an office job, Alternative Ulster epitomized the DIY (“Do It Yourself”) ethic that powered punk’s subculture.  Handwritten, collaged, Xeroxed, slang-saturated, partisan: zines like Punk, Sniffin’ Glue, Negative Reaction, and countless others challenged the authenticity of the established music press and put the fan’s voice and experience at the center of pop music.  The cut-up, remix aesthetic of the zine asserted both the creativity of fans and a certain stance toward culture: mass culture wasn’t something to be consumed, it supplied the lexicon of signs and symbols to make a new kind of speech, a new mode of communication and confusion.

 

Sideburns 1977

Zines exemplify the ways that punk democratized culture and the means of mechanical reproduction.  But, musicianship itself was also redefined by punk.  The Adverts celebrated their status as “One Chord Wonders.”  Expertise and all its trappings became a vice.  Not playing “well” testified to authenticity, collapsed the distance between performer and audience, and kicked open the doors to participation.  New labels like Stiff and Rough Trade took the lessons of DIY into the music business itself.  Everywhere, punk violently and joyously transferred authority and expertise to the mosh pit, the fan, and the geezer.

Today we can recognize these assertions of access and participation as central elements of the open-source movement.  Take CAC. Starting with the ubiquitous WordPress platform, CAC added BuddyPress, another open-source project, and then mixed in MediaWiki, the platform that powers today’s most audacious example of “punk” knowledge – - Wikipedia.   Like the stitched together textuality of punk fanzines, open-source lives and dies by the hack, the ability to bricolage at-hand materials – - codes, modules, widgets, and plug-ins – - for local purposes.

The success of CAC’s particular hack depends on “its participation in the broader community of open-source developers.”  Rethinking application development as collaboration, CAC opens up new modes and intensities of participation.   Punk imploded the distance between stage and audience, performer and fan.   Open-source encourages similar erasures.  “It was important,” Gold and Otte write, “to help members help themselves.   Given a small support staff, the project had to disrupt the typical client-service model of academic technology.”  As participants problem-solve together, “top-down” authority is replaced by “peer-to-peer interactions.”  DIY cultures, built on access and participation, redistribute agency, creativity, and expertise.

At least one possible motto for CUNY AC might be: Occupy the help desk!  And, though Zuccotti Park may be many blocks south of CUNY AC’s servers, we can see the same DIY ethic at work there.  From its origins to its ideologies and its (dis)organization to its global proliferation, the Occupy movement replicates from DIY genetic code.

To focus on one tiny moment in this process, take the typical Occupation campsite. Volunteers assemble a kitchen, which requires some to cook, some to serve, some to wash-up, and others to solicit food and water.  A People’s Library is assembled – - books are collected and distributed and, often, wi-fi service is established.  Sometimes, electricity for the camp comes from generators; sometimes, it comes from bicycle-charged batteries.  Originally devised to evade bans on sound systems, the “mic check” transforms listeners into participants and speechmaking into collective activity.  OWS participants hack an encampment out of available resources, people, and possibilities.  As one possible OWS manifesto declares: “Implement FLO (free libre open-source) solutions for everything.”

“Where are your demands?”  “Where are your leaders?”  This is how the “establishment” makes itself most visible today – - trapped obsessively-compulsively in questions that enact its own limits.  OWS spreads unease amongst pundits and professionals because the specter of popular agency indicates their own redundancy; Occupy’s steady, effective, exuberant self-management underscores the establishment’s lazy reliance on an inadequate map of reality.  The media’s hysterical fascination with punk in the late 70s.  The monthly alerts – - issued by publishers, educators, et al. – - about the dangers and seductions of Wikipedia.  OWS’s ability to baffle the talking-heads and columnists.  Open-sourced movements reveal the contingency of “normal/ized” social roles – - performer/audience, administrator/user, expert/amateur, producer/consumer.   In those moments when DIY becomes a viable alternative, the true vampire catches an unnerving glimpse of itself in the mirror.

Communalization/”They say you’ll never be free”

Punk was always more than defiant refusals and anti-culture bombs.  Punk changed social relations.  Trapped by decomposing identities – - youth, Englishness, whiteness, class, religion – - and interred in the ruins of the modernity – - the suburb, forsaken cities, sterile malls – - punks forged new ways of belonging.

When The Clash cancelled a 1977 Belfast appearance, punks from all over Ireland rioted.  But, Gavin Martin describes how this riot exposed a new, secret geography of solidarity: “the cancellation was pivotal. This was no ordinary Ulster riot based on political allegiance or religious affiliation. This was a riot that united people looking for a good time against the forces of repression.”   Newly experienced forms of collectivity revealed the beach beneath the streets: “This was how punk began to open Belfast – the city where I had been born – back up to me. Closed off by security gates, scarred, shocked, pockmarked by shooting, bomb blasts and the pervasive thrall of terror Belfast was shaken alive, crowbarred open – by punk.”  The graveyard of the 20th century becomes a space occupied, controlled, and recreated by those who had been condemned to death row.

It would be too irresponsible and inadequate to talk of a punk “community.”  Instead, we should talk about punk as a moment of “communalization,” the hacking open of a redemptive, shared, autonomous space through what Raul Zibechi sees as a double movement: a “dispersion of power plus social cooperation.  A positive productive force and a negative dispersive force” (141).  The most radical alternative offered by punk or OWS or CUNY AC is a life without bosses or institutions.  The communalization dynamic generates collectivities powered by cooperation without coercion, ownership without property, and freedom with solidarity.

Communalization helps to explain the astounding viral qualities of the Occupy movement.  Obviously, from Tahir Square to OccupySantaRosa, social media – - twitter, facebook, global square – - played a central role in disseminating the movement.  But, there’s nothing magical about social media; instead, twitter et al. provide a platform for communalization.  Blogs like wearethe99percent cultivate solidarities because they disperse control and de-centralize authority while inviting everyone to become authors and experts.  They don’t build or represent community; they host the communalization process.

As two of the instigators of CAC comment: CAC works by eschewing “a work culture defined by rank and position” so that “authority, once characterized by increasingly limited access, is now forged by responsiveness in open forums; leadership is gauged by helpfulness, not determined by a chain of command; expertise is demonstrated by active public engagement.”  The dialectic of dispersion and cooperation encourages academic workers to “to regroup and reconfigure themselves, to use the serendipity of searches to realign themselves.”  Communalization proposes a radical redefinition of freedom: freedom from authority depends on freedom of association and, vice versa, freedom of association depends on freedom from authority.

Grave-diggers

Already, there are too many inducements to escape from the 21st century: violence, inequality, hypocrisy, corruption, eco-cide.  But as an old German once quipped:  “The development of modern industry . . . cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products.  What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”  Seeking new consumers, capitalism continually reduces the cost of technology – - electric guitars, smartphones, servers.  Sadly for capitalism, once these commodities are released into the “sea of the people,” all bets are off.  Angry working-class Irish kids start making noise and creating new scenes.  De-classed petit-bourgeois types start tweeting tent cities into being. Those who grease the gears of social reproduction – - teachers – - start hacking an idealized academic community into reality.  Beneath the streets, squares, and institutions of late capitalism, the old mole of freedom burrows its alternative routes and warrens, waiting for the grave-digger’s spade to sink into gravelly ground.

 

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