Nanostories and the Hyper-massification of Culture

Posted in Literature, Reviews, Useful with tags , , , , on August 22, 2009 by xugro

There is no culture where there is no acceptance of certain final intellectual positions to which a dispute may be referred. There is no culture where economic relations are not subject to a regulating principle to protect interests involved. There is no culture where aesthetic controversy does not recognize the necessity of justifying the work of art. When all these things are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism.    –Ortega y Gasset

For a while now, I’ve been wondering about the consequences of our the Internet’s sheer multiplication of narratives and the radical democratization of cultural production that the web, along with powerful and ever-cheaper technology,  has engendered. What are the consequences for culture if everyone, potentially, can produce it? I can record high-quality music on my computer at home, just like millions of other would-be musicians, then distribute it around the globe through MySpace or a host of other sites–or distribute it on my own website, like the amazing band Deep Sea Summit. I can produce videos and send them to YouTube and, with a great deal of self-promotion and luck, reach an audience of millions. I can blog forever, alongside the legions of fellow bloggers. Yet the curmudgeon in me wonders whether the millions of bloggers in the world working on millions of laptops will ever produce a Hamlet. Or if a Citizen Kane could appear from the ashes of so many YouTube shorts. Or if a Goldberg Variations could be assembled from the collective effort of MySpace bands. Or if Wikipedia could ever be as all-encompassing as St. Isidore’s Etymologies or Pliny the Elder’s Natural History–it’s certainly as flawed.

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Piracy, Past and Present II: Content Pirates

Posted in Glosses, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2009 by xugro

As a follow-up to my last post about piracy, I wanted to write a bit more about the pirating of content, which has a history that’s as long and storied as seafaring piracy. The concepts of copyright and intellectual property are fairly new in jurisprudence. I won’t give a detailed history here, but rather speak to my own expertise in Renaissance-era history and literature in Spain.

The notion of plagiarism, moreover, did not exist in Cervantes’ time. In my post on Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, I discussed how map plates were often bought, sold, or simply reproduced in the race for the best atlas. Imitatio was an acceptable, even admirable exercise. Those who took lines from a famous poet, paraphrased or change them in some way, were not guilty of an offense but rather applauded for their deference to established authority. It was easy enough to reprint an unauthorized edition and flood the market with cheap copies of the same work, and such editions often got around the significant problem of royal or Inquisitorial censorship.

Authors of the early modern period were caught between models of patronage and an emerging capitalist idea of copyright. John Milton, for example, famously sold the rights to Paradise Lost for a pittance.

In the prefatory materials  to part 2 of Don Quixote, Cervantes worries that an “unauthorized” continuation of Don Quixote’s adventures–the “Avellaneda” Quixote from 1614– has hit the market before Cervantes’ own continuation (1615), causing “loathing and disgust” (Grossman’s translation). For Cervantes, this is not a financial issue, but rather one of authorship and creative control or authority over his creation–the characters aren’t really the same ones he envisioned. This claim stands in stark contrast to the first part of Don Quixote (1605), in which Cervantes states he’s the “stepfather” of Don Quixote and continually problematizes the concepts of text, authorship and authority.

Lope de Vega, a contemporary of Cervantes, was also concerned about unauthorized publications of his works, again not for financial reasons. Instead, Lope’s concern was about the integrity of his plays as dramatic and poetic perfection. Those who printed his works relied on audience members with questionable memory for poetry, and thus Lope prints his works to set the record straight.

Content piracy indeed existed, and it was questionable and possibly illegal. Yet it remained an alternative and widespread means of dissemination.

Fast-forward to the present. The music and movie industries scored a minor victory in the trial against The Pirate Bay, a file-sharing site whose founders are outspoken critics of intellectual property and copyright in particular. They envision a future in which content is unprotected and free to use, modify, and distribute worldwide. One of the Pirate Bay’s arguments during their trial was that search engines like Google provide essentially the same services–a searchable database  that can locate torrent files and enable the user to download copyrighted content free of charge.

Still, experts estimate that 95% of music is downloaded illegally. While the music industry and Hollywood have made some steps to modernize their business model, it’s clear that they’re living in the past. Lawsuits like the one brought against The Pirate Bay or individual users are aimed at recovering profits for record companies and movie studios, not artists. While these corporations insist they are making it safe for artists to create content, it’s obvious that drastic change must occur to make sites like The Pirate Bay unattractive. Legal threats haven’t changed the majority of how users obtain and share content. Accordingly, more and more acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are distributing their work for free, and making a living on special editions and live shows.

While online downloading via Amazon or iTunes, special editions, boxed sets, and DVDs aimed at collectors are doubtless good moves forward for content providers, current distribution networks (big box retail stores, record stores) are still an unreliable network in an age of instant access. That’s where sites like The Pirate Bay come into play.

File sharing portals are essentially the dark underbelly of their legal counterparts like Spotify, Rhapsody, YouTube, and the reformed Napster. As I suggested in the previous post, if Somali piracy is the evil twin of global capitalism, content piracy is the necessary inverse of our own culture of instant gratification. Hulu, Twitter, Facebook and The Pirate Bay are all variations on the same theme.

Piracy, Past and Present

Posted in Glosses, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2009 by xugro

Piracy has enjoyed a surge of attention in recent months, especially this past week as pirates based in Somalia unsuccessfully attempted to capture a US cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. Three pirates were killed and another is being held in custody while the heroic captain of the vessel, Richard Phillips, is free after a hellish ordeal. Yet pirates still hold over 200 hostages and continue to stage brazen attacks on merchant vessels at an alarming rate.

Things were not so different in Cervantes’ time, when piracy was a huge concern for nations with Mediterranean coastlines. Pirates of all nations terrorized coastal villages and took captives for the purpose of raising ransom money. Moreover, piracy was not limited to one region or religion. Cervantes, who was a captive himself in Algiers for years, writes of Christian, Muslim, and renegade pirates who would often claim whatever religion was convenient. The famed Knights of Malta and Francis Drake are two other examples of Christian pirates, reminding us that piracy was perceived as a legitimate activity if undertaken in the service of a sovereign state or military/religious order. Perhaps most fascinating about piracy in Cervantes’ time is that after the expulsion of the moriscos from Spain in 1609 and afterward, Northern Africa became home to thousands of disaffected former Spaniards with an intimate knowledge of the country and its coast, many of whom became pirates. Piracy was a perfectly acceptable source of income for people of all nations and religions.

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What kind of dog is this?

Posted in Photos with tags , , , , on April 11, 2009 by xugro

We adopted a dog from a rescue shelter last August and named him Neus (“snow” in Catalan). He was described as a Pit Bull / Terrier mix. While he may have looked like one at the time (esp. a Boston Terrier), he’s grown to almost 60 lbs. We think he has some Border Collie (always chasing things and organizing balls) and possibly Great Dane in him, but aren’t sure. What do you think he is based on these photos? We’ve heard everything from Domo Argentino to American Staffordshire.


Posted in Literature, poetry, Useful with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2009 by xugro

So my dissertation’s all done and turned in, despite the false start I had the day I submitted it. I’ve decided to publish the abstract online (full text available upon request) just in case there’s the off chance someone would actually read it. There’s more of a chance that someone would read it by stumbling upon it on the internet than when it’s actually published on microfilm or in book form. Whether the latter ever happens is another story.

I mean, I did spend almost three years working on it. Not that that makes it good. Anyway, hit the “read more” button for the abstract then a link to email me for the PDF of the whole thing.

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Killzone 2, Fascism and Morality

Posted in Useful, video games with tags , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2009 by xugro

Helghast Triad Symbol

Out with the old, in with the…old?

Killzone 2 is a fascinating game on many levels. It is graphically stunning, and the gameplay is intense and addictive. Yet the game’s story is perhaps the most interesting aspect of all. It performs a complex intervention into contemporary geopolitics by problematizing moral clarity in times of war.

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False start.

Posted in Rants with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2009 by xugro

I was dreading today because I have to turn in my dissertation. I defended it over a month ago and wanted to give myself time to revise it and format according to my university’s arcane and bizarre requirements. First and foremost is the fact that it is to be “published” on microfilm. I have to pay a $100 fee for this privilege. Have you ever used a microfilm? I have a few times, but only to read old newspapers from the 19th century, certain rare books, and so on. As if academia weren’t obsolescent enough already. At least I don’t have to do an index.

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