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Part 2: 'Pro-gumbo': culture as anarchy

About the author
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a cultural historian and media scholar. In addition to his openDemocracy column, his work has been published in American Scholar, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other prestigious journals.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of the forthcoming The Anarchist in the Library and a true scholar of the internet age, presents a compelling, five-part panorama of the implications of electronic peer-to-peer networks for culture, science, security, and globalisation. His provocative argument registers peer-to-peer as a key site of contest over freedom and control of information.

Part 1: It’s a peer-to-peer world
In the first of his five-part series, Siva Vaidhyanathan maps the fluid new territory of electronic peer-to-peer networks that are transforming the information ecosystem. Is this a landscape of enlarging freedoms where citizens shape the forms and meanings of social communication, or does it offer an invitation to entrenching state surveillance and closure?

Part 2: ‘Pro-gumbo’: culture as anarchy
Peer-to-peer technologies have precedents in the anarchistic and hybrid processes by which cultures have always been formed. Decoding anxious cultural preservationists from Matthew Arnold to Samuel Huntington, the second instalment of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s five-part series reframes p2p in the light of other technologies and practices – cassettes, creolisation, world music – which likewise reveal the energetic promiscuity of culture. Any attempt to censor or limit this flow would leave cultures stagnant.

Part 3: The anarchy and oligarchy of science
Science is knowledge in pursuit of truth that can expand human betterment. But part three of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s powerful series sees the free information flows at the heart of science being pressured by the copyright economy, the post-9/11 security environment, proprietary capture of genetic databases, and science policies of governments and universities. If commerce and control defeat openness and accumulation, what happens to science impacts on democracy itself.

Part 4: The nation-state vs. networks
In the last decade, the nation-state has survived three challenges to its hegemony – from the Washington Consensus, the California Ideology, and Anarchy. The promise of a borderless globalisation unified by markets and new technology has been buried. The fourth part of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s compelling series asks: what then remains of the utopian vision of global peer-to-peer networks that would bypass traditional structures of power?

Part 5: Networks of power and freedom
The use by non-state networks of new communication technologies is challenging ideas about citizenship, security, and the nation-state. In response, the impulse to restrict or suppress is shared by states as different as the United States and the People’s Republic of China. In concluding his five-part openDemocracy series, Siva Vaidhyanathan maps an issue that will define the landscape of 21st century politics.

Part 2: ‘Pro-gumbo’: culture as anarchy

In much of the American South before the Civil War, drums were illegal. Slaveholders were aware of the West African traditions of “talking instruments” and tried everything within their means to stifle free, open, unmediated communication across distances. Drums could signal insurrection. And drums could conjure collective memories of a time of freedom.

Mostly, slaveholders realised that to subjugate masses of people, they had to alienate them from their culture as much as possible. They had to strand them in a strange land and try to make that land seem stranger than it was. They had to strictly regulate slave culture. They had to outlaw slave literacy. They had to commit social and cultural homicide to keep otherwise free people from rising up and taking charge of their own bodies.

That the rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean still set the time for American culture speaks to the determination and courage of African American slaves. The slaveholders outlawed the tools. But they could not stop the beat (see Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans and Christopher Small, Music of the Common Tongue)

That the rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean still set the time for American culture speaks to the determination and courage of African American slaves. The slaveholders outlawed the tools. But they could not stop the beat.

As oligarchic forces such as global entertainment conglomerates strive to restrict certain tools that they assume threaten their livelihood, they should consider that throughout the history of communication, people have managed to use and adapt technologies in surprising and resilient ways.

Once in a while, a set of communicative technologies offers revolutionary potential: peer-to-peer networks do just that. They are part of a collection of technologies – including cassette audio tapes, video tapes, recordable compact discs, video discs, home computers, the internet, and jet airplanes – that link diasporic communities and remake nations. They empower artists in new ways and connect communities of fans.

The battle to control these cultural flows says much about the anxieties and unsteadiness of the power structures that had hoped to exploit cultural globalisation. It also teaches us much about the nature of culture itself.

Global culture by the download

A couple of years ago, a journalist friend of mine put me in contact with a gentleman who does consulting work for the World Bank. This gentleman called me to see if I was interested in participating in a meeting in New York that June which would enable cultural ministers from a handful of African countries – including Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa – to meet leaders from the American music industry. The goal was to brainstorm about how African musicians might exploit digital music distribution systems to market and deliver their songs directly to diasporic communities.

The battle to control these cultural flows says much about the anxieties and unsteadiness of the power structures that had hoped to exploit cultural globalisation. It also teaches us much about the nature of culture itself.

He had no way of knowing what I thought of this idea. I had yet to publish anything on the subject. So my opinions were not widely known. So he was not quite prepared for my reaction.

“Why do they need record companies?” I asked. “The artists can do it all themselves for less than $10,000.”

He was stunned. Having a World Bank perspective on development, he assumed that the artists of the developing world would need and welcome the giant helping hand of Bertelsmann or AOL Time Warner. So he responded with an appeal to technological expertise. The artists would need the major labels, he said, because the labels are working on incorporating digital rights management software into digital music files. Without watermarking or copy-protection features, the artists would just be giving their music away.

Then I explained to him that it was too late for all that. The power of digitisation and networking had beaten him and the record companies to it. I didn't even touch the subject of the complications inherent in asking African musicians – who are often dissidents – to work with government culture ministers. I just made it seem like he had missed a technological moment. He had the best of intentions. But he had not considered that certain technological changes had fostered a new ideological movement as well. And that these trends might change the nature of global music and creativity.

All music will be ‘world music’

One of the great unanswered questions is how file sharing and MP3 compression will affect the distribution of what music corporations call “world music”, tunes from non-English-speaking nations, offering rhythms that seem fresh to Europeans and Americans who have grown up and old on the driving four-four beat of rock-and-roll.

Now, rhymes and rhythms from all corners of the Earth are available in malleable form at low cost to curious artists everywhere. Peer-to-peer has gone global. Of course, there are some big economic and technological hurdles to overcome before it can affect all cultural traditions equally. As the differences narrow, how will the availability of a vast and already stunningly diverse library of sounds change creativity and commerce? Won’t all music be “world music?”

The riches of ephemera

On any given day, on any peer-to-peer file sharing system, one can find the most obscure and rare items. I have downloaded some of Malcolm X’s speeches, Reggae remixes of Biggie Smalls’ hits, various club dance mixes of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and long lost Richard Pryor comedy bits that were only released on vinyl by a long-defunct company. Through nation-specific and general “world music” chat rooms on the now-defunct Napster, I had been able to find Tamil film songs, Carnatic classical music, and pop stuff from Asian Dub Foundation, Ali Farka Toure, Orisha, and Youssou N’Dour. The most interesting and entertaining phenomena of the MP3-peerto-peer is the availability of “mashes” – new compositions created by combining the rhythm tracks of one song and the vocal track of another. (The best example of a popular “mash”, currently, is Genie’s Revenge, a combination of vocals by Christina Aguilera and a guitar riff by the Strokes).

Anxious ethnomusicology

This is a phenomenon that ethnomusicologists are just starting to consider. During the 1980s and 1990s, anthropologist Steven Feld raised some serious questions about the future of global cultural diversity as “world music” gained market share and generated interest among western producers and labels.

Feld published some of his thoughts as an article called A Sweet Lullaby for World Music. The article traces the development of marketing efforts for this new genre of “world music”, which meant anything from drum beats from Mali to the ambient sounds of lemurs in Madagascar.

Feld expressed concern early on the very term “world music” made some forms of music distinct from what academics and music industry figures call “music”. Since the rise of the world music genre as a commercial factor, music scholarship has been asking the question, “how has difference fared in the new gumbo?” Feld wrote that recent world music scholarship has revealed the “uneven rewards, unsettling representations, and complexly entangled desires that lie underneath the commercial rhetoric of global connection, that is, the rhetoric of ‘free’ flow and ‘greater’ access.”

“Free flow” is a buzzword in north-south communication policy debates. Stemming from 1970s arguments in Unesco forums, the United States argued that the world community should establish standards that would encourage the free flow of information across borders, ostensibly to spread democracy and ensure civil rights.

Many oppressive states – chiefly India under Indira Gandhi – argued that the doctrine of “free flow” was merely a cover for what we now call the neoliberal agenda: sweetening American corporate expansion by dusting it with the sugar of enlightenment principles.

The “free-flow” vs. “cultural imperialism” argument (which has since been supplemented by another approach that emphasises the complex uses to which all audiences put cultural elements) has unfortunately limited our vision and stifled discussions about what we might do to encourage freedom and the positive externalities of cultural flow while limiting the oppressive and exploitative externalities of the spread of American and European modes of cultural production and distribution.

Feld also outlined the reaction to scholarship that embraced this “cultural imperialism” model. In contrast to those who raise concerns about the spread of new loud noises, “celebratory” scholarship emphasised the use and re-use of elements of American and European musical forms in the emerging pop sounds flowing from the developing world. It also celebrated the new market success that artists from the developing world were achieving. This scholarship emphasised fluid cultural identities and predicted an eventual equilibrium of the power differences in the world music industry.

This school, which I subscribe to, downplays the influence of hegemony and underlines the potential creative and democratic power of sharing. Instead of “celebratory”, I prefer the term “pro-gumbo”.

Steven Feld, who belongs to that group of scholars who utilise what he calls “anxious narratives”, sees little possibility for resisting the commodification of ethnicity and musical styles. For the anxious, “global” becomes “displaced”; “emerging” become “exploited”; “cultural conversations” become “white noise”. To make his point that we should not ignore the effects of the cultural violence that is primitivism, Feld writes, “The advertisement of this democratic and liberal vision for world music embodies an idealism about free-flows, sharing, and choice. But it masks the reality that visibility in product choice is directly related to sales volume, profitability, and stardom.”

Even though I celebrate sharing, free flows, and gumbo, I must concede the gravity of Feld’s concerns. But my question now is: how does peer-to-peer change these issues?

Feld is really writing about the anxieties of ethnomusicologists. He is not so concerned with the effects on the actual music and how it works in the lives of musicians and fans:

“In the end, no matter how inspiring the musical creation, no matter how affirming its participatory dimension, the existence and success of world music returns to one of globalization’s basic economic clichés: the drive for more and more markets and market niches. In the cases here, we see how the worlds of small (UNESCO and Auvidis) and large (Sony) and major independent (ECM) music owners and distributors can come into unexpected interaction. We see how production can proceed from the acquisition of a faraway cheap inspiration and labor. We see how exotic Euromorphs can be marketed through newly layered tropes, like green enviroprimitivism, or spiritual new age avant-garde romanticism. We see how what is produced has a place in a larger industrial music zone of commodity intensification, in this case artistic encounters with indigeneity, as made over in popular Western styles. In all, we see how world music participates in shaping a kind of consumer-friendly multiculturalism, one that follows the market logic of expansion and consolidation.”
The peer-to-peer solution

Perhaps the spread of peer-to-peer libraries should allay the concerns of anxious critics. Peer-to-peer music distribution – so far – has been all about decorporatisation and deregulation. Music corporations do not control the flow, prices, or terms of access anymore. Music distribution has lower barriers of entry than ever before, and offers the potential of direct, communal marketing and creolisation.

We should acknowledge some key concepts about cultural globalisation:

  • It’s happening, but it’s rolling out in ways that are alarming to those who hoped to profit the most from it.
  • The prices and profits of globalisation are falling unevenly and unpredictably.
  • Culture is not zero-sum. Using something does not prevent someone else from using it, and does not degrade its value. In fact, it might enhance it.

Culture is anarchistic

We often mistake the collection of end-products of culture – the symphonies and operas, novels and poems – that have survived the rigorous peer review of markets and critics as the culture itself.

Culture is anarchistic if it is alive at all. It grows up from the common, everyday interactions among humans who share a condition or a set of common symbols and experiences.

We often mistake the collection of end-products of culture – the symphonies and operas, novels and poems – that have survived the rigorous peer review of markets and critics as the culture itself. Culture is not the sum of its products. It is the process that generates those products. And if it is working properly, culture is radically democratic, vibrant, malleable, surprising, and fun.

These two different visions of culture explain much of the difference between the assumptions behind information anarchy and information oligarchy. Anarchists – and many less radical democrats – believe that culture should flow with minimal impediments. Oligarchs, even if they seem politically liberal, favor a top-down approach to culture with massive intervention from powerful institutions such as the state, corporations, universities, or museums. All of these institutions may be used to construct and preserve free flows of culture and information. But all too often they are harnessed to the oligarchic cause, making winners into bigger winners, and thus rigging the cultural market.

What Matthew Arnold thinks of P2P

In 1867 the English critic Matthew Arnold published a treatise called Culture and Anarchy. The book was an extended argument with the cultural implications of John Stuart Mill’s 1859 book On Liberty. Arnold took Mill to task for endorsing a low level of cultural regulation. Culture, to Arnold, was all the good stuff that cultural authorities such as himself said it was. And culture, in the Arnoldian sense, was preferable – was in fact and antidote to – anarchy.

Samuel Huntington expresses this same oligarchic theory of culture in his simplistic yet influential book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Huntington sees cultures as grounded on certain immutable foundations. He sees the emphasis on cultural transmission, fluidity, and hybridity as “trivial” when compared to the deep, essential texts and beliefs of a culture. Huntington affirms the role of the Bible in what he calls “western civilization” and the role of the Analects of Confucius in what he calls “Confucian civilization.”

In this way, Huntington disregards how people who live in these cultures actually use the texts and symbols around them. “The essence of Western Civilization is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac,” Huntington writes, despite the fact that most residents of the nations he labels “western” have no idea of the history or significance of the Magna Carta, yet no one can underestimate the cultural power of the Big Mac. Huntington is arguing against cultural globalisation, against fostering flows and exchanges of ideas and information. He looks at a dangerous and angry world and prescribes walls instead of paths.

Huntington’s preferred world might be quieter, but it would also be darker and dumber. The fact is, cultures change, grow, and revise themselves over time if they are allowed to. And cultural life is healthier when cultures are allowed to grow and revise themselves. Only during the European “Dark Ages” (5th to 12th centuries CE) have we seen a large portion of the world sever its cultural arteries and rely on internal and local signs and symbols. Europe was stuck in a time of crippling cultural stasis while the rest of the world, led by Persian and Arab traders, moved on. The Dark Ages in Europe were a time of mass illiteracy and not-coincidental concentrations of power among local elites.

Every area of the world becomes more diverse in the local sense as long as people are free to borrow pieces of cultural expressions and re-use them in interesting ways.

As Tyler Cowen explains in his book Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures, cultural exchange generates cultural change. Exchange might make disparate cultures more like each other, but it also infuses each culture with new choices, new ideas, and new languages. Every area of the world becomes more diverse in the local sense as long as people are free to borrow pieces of cultural expressions and re-use them in interesting ways.

Culture as process

This idea of culture as temporal, contingent, dynamic, and Creolised best describes how culture actually works in people’s lives. No one lives in Matthew Arnold’s “culture”; and few would want to live in Samuel Huntington’s. The fact is, most of us don’t have a clue why the Magna Carta as a document is important to us, if it is at all any more. Many more of us can wax about how Madonna is important to us. And she is important to our culture in different ways to different people at different times.

Madonna, like the culture that rewards and follows her, is temporal, contingent, and dynamic. As Lawrence Levine explains in Black Culture and Black Consciousness, “culture is not a fixed condition but a process: the product of interaction between the past and the present. Its toughness and resiliency are determined not by a culture’s ability to withstand change, which indeed may be a sign of stagnation not life, but by its ability to react creatively and responsively to the realities of a new situation.”

If we use some instrument of technology or law to dampen that vibrancy, malleability, or dynamics, of culture, we risk cultural stasis. Deployed carelessly, such instruments can freeze-in winners and chill losers – or those merely waiting to play.


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