Power Plays in the Lifeworld

Music and Cyberliberties, Patrick Burkart (180pp, $24.95, Wesleyan)
Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking
, Tan Lin

     (224pp, $22.95, Wesleyan)

In 1970, the Guggenheim Museum in New York cancelled Hans Haacke’s show because it included a work the museum claimed was libellous. Haacke had planned a work which documented Manhattan real estate holdings on the Lower East Side and in Harlem. And, as he points out in an interview published in Art Talk: The Early 80s (Da Capo Press, 1988), there was nothing libellous or ‘illegal about publishing public information. I relied on the files of the city Registrar’s office which are open to the public.’

Patrick Burkart’s new book quotes a more recent example of what he terms the ‘chilling effects’ of ‘the legal inability to commodify cultural reproduction’:

     At Texas A&M University, my own research program on the
     digital-rights management built into the major music service
     providers’ software was tied up in legal wrangling that
     ultimately postponed a ‘hands on’ comparison of strong and
     weak DRM policies. In a memo to university president Robert
     Gates, legal counsel for the university wrote that disseminating
     the results of the research, rather than conducting the research
     per se, could violate the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act).

Music and Cyberliberties
does much more than just remind us that the same struggles with power and vested interests keep on happening. Burkart’s book is a timely overview of what’s happened since the court defeat of Napster and the ascendancy of what he terms the Celestial Jukebox model of music e-commerce which sells licensed access to music. The book is blurbed as ‘An activist’s guide for musicians and fans opposed to the major label lockdown of online music’ but Burkart’s approach is more detailed and considered than that might suggest. He draws on the work of Jürgen Habermas to show what he calls ‘the music lifeworld’ being invaded by ‘power dynamics that reinforce the roles of ‘client’ and ‘consumer’’; and ‘digital music distribution [pulling] the rug out from under many of the communal and sharing practices that have enabled local music scenes on and off the Net.’ (3-4)

As this suggests, Burkart’s book is an interesting mixture of critical theory and informed higher journalism. So, while his principle interests are whether opposition to the Celestial Jukebox model of digital music distribution contains the ‘spark of an incipient social movement’ and whether Habermas’s theory of communicative action can be adapted to take account of life online, his book is full of things that give one pause for serious thought. For example, did you know that the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Producers (ASCAP) threatened the Girl Scouts of America over the campfire singing of songs such as ‘God Bless America’ and ‘Happy Birthday to You’ because the Girl Scouts weren’t paying performance royalties? And did you know that many of the online contracts we happily agree to (Burkart calls these clickwrap agreements) are often in contravention of basic consumer protections such as cooling off periods? 

What Burkart describes, of course, is a problem fundamental to the cyber age. Using a computer, being online, feels
libertarian, sometimes radically so, but has become more and more tightly controlled. There’s always been a lack of fit between the way that computer companies tell you their wealth is based on, say, a program a college kid wrote in his dad’s shed and the amount of threatening legalese with which they surround their products. It’s like a Star Chamber or inquisition run by folksy pioneers and scatterbrained inventors. And those who complain that the internet is unregulated ‘like the Wild West’ don’t tell you that the way big companies use the law online is often just like the Wild West too. They act as prosecutor, judge and jury and getting redress can be very difficult.

Burkart could and should have said more about how what he describes in digital music distribution was already there; about the way that the internet has made individuals into products (think about the way that Amazon, for example, markets you back to yourself as products you might like); and, crucially, about the new business models that are needed if musicians are to go on making a living. But his book will make everyone who reads it think about their own life online and examine their position on whether digital means free.

If Burkart’s book makes us think about how we live online, then Tan Lin’s wants to reconceptualise the book for the digital age. From Burkart to book art, you might say. Its cross-genre subtitle is as lengthy as its main title: Airport Novel Musical Poem Painting Film Photo Hallucination Landscape. Wesleyan University Press bill Seven Controlled Vocabularies as book for the post-book age and Lin has huge fun with the format. All that appears on the front cover is the usual colophon information—Library of Congress cataloguing date, ISBN, etc—and the first printed page one encounters says ‘[INSIDE BACK COVER]’. Similarly, the ‘Acknowledgements’ seem to refer to another book published by Verso; and an ‘Editorial Note’ announces the book as ‘a series of intratextual collaborations in a typescript produced and renovated over several decades by more than one author. There are numerous errors of omission because blandness has no boundaries. Plagiarism is another manner. It was one of the necessary aims of revision.’ So far so hilarious but this makes an important point that book production, writing and reading involve modes and manners. We expect books to follow a certain propriety.

Seven Controlled Vocabularies
is a kind of ur-book for the digital age and, as Wesleyan say, ‘a kind of field guide to the arts’. Each of the book’s seven sections focuses on a particular art form—film, photography, painting, the novel, architecture, music, and theory—and mixes text and found images. In fact, this is a book that wants you to read it in the same way that you surf online. But, wait a minute, isn’t a book that wants to be like the internet a bit sad? A bit like TV programmes that tell you about ‘cool’ websites? Maybe. But Tan Lin is testing his and our preconceptions about form and narrative. The style is often quite aphoristic as these examples of opening lines show:

     Poems to be looked at vs. poems to be read vs. paintings
     to be sequenced vs. paintings to be sampled.


     Everything is a form of longing if you say it is. Nothing that is
     indignant is very ugly. Nothing that is not consumed exists
     for very long.

Seven Controlled Vocabularies
is, in one sense, a book of prose poems. This aspect of the book is best described as Max Jacob meets language writing meets flarf. But, like Burkart, Lin is interested in the new narratives that are being constructed for us:

     In a post-monarchist system like Wal-Mart, everything is
     electronically tagged [variant record] infrastructure, except
     the architecture. In the future, all Wal-Marts will be on
     wheels and will be driven to ‘new’ rural areas as the
     need arises. Such premonitory spaces [like the lifestyle
     zones on a Wal-Mart selling floor] are ‘places’ where the
     future has ‘already happened’. Such spaces are
     beautiful because very little memory can be retrieved from
     them. Each zone of the selling floor rises into nothing
     and behaves like a cage for desire... (127)

In the context of Burkart’s book, Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies
also registers new forces at work in the lifeworld and with how we are constructed by these forces. The difference is that Lin wants to explore how this affects our inner lives and, in turn, our cultural behaviour and textual manners. His over-riding interest seems to be how we look at things and how we appear. Fragmented poems and extracts of autobiography rub shoulders with informed discussions of reality TV and the emotional impact of film. So, to sum up: two handbooks to important changes. Both well worth your time and money.

     © David Kennedy, 2010