Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Work for Hire update

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned on this blog a situation I was in: that I was unwilling to sign a contract for an essay I had written in contribution an anthology of critical essays from Oxford University Press (OUP), because the contract stipulated that the essay would be regarded as “work for hire.” This would mean that I would have absolutely no rights as the author of the work. Whereas most academic press contracts ask you to sign away certain of your rights, by transferring copyright from yourself to the press, this contract from OUP meant that I would have no rights at all — if I signed, I would be agreeing that (as Gordon Hull put it — see the comments to the previous blog entry) “copyright was never [mine] in the first place — it belonged to OUP from the start.” It is obvious that, were this to become the norm in academic publishing, then intellectual enquiry and academic freedom, as we now know them, would cease to exist. Writers would become “knowledge workers” whose output belonged to the press that published them (or to the university at which they worked, in another variant of the scenario) in the same way that code written on the job at Microsoft, Apple, or Google belongs to those companies, and not to the writers themselves.

Well, the academics who are putting together the volume to which I was supposed to be contributing graciously asked OUP on my behalf about the work for hire provision. The response they got back was that the Press wouldn’t budge on work for hire. I don’t think I have permission to actually reproduce the words of the editor from OUP, so I will paraphrase. What he basically said was that traditional publication agreements are insufficient because they only give presses “limited sets of rights.” In other words, he was openly confessing that OUP seeks complete and unlimited control over the material that they publish. The justification he gave for this was that old neoliberal standby, “flexibility” — OUP is seeking to do all sorts of digital distribution, and if rights are limited then they may not be able to control new forms of distribution that arise due to technological changes. Of course, the mendaciousness of this claim can be seen by the fact that, as was confirmed to me by one of the people involved in putting together the volume, the “work-for-hire” provision was in place long before the Press even got the idea of supplementing physical publication of the volume with a (no doubt password-protected and expensive to acces) website.

Equally alarmingly, the editor said in his email that this “work for hire” provision was now standard practice for the press, at least as regards their very ambitious series of “Handbook” volumes. In other words, OUP is being quite systematic in usurping authors’ rights. If we don’t stop this now, it will become more and more prevalent throughout academic publishing. The volume to which I was supposed to contribute is quite an excellent one, with lots of great articles  (I don’t want to mention its name here so as not to disparage the work of the three academics who put it together).

But I, for one, am determined never to write for Oxford University Press again, unless they eliminate this policy; and I would urge others to refuse to write for them as well. I know that people in less privileged positions than mine are pretty much compelled to sign odious agreements of this sort, because they need the publications for academic credit and recognition, and often specifically for tenure or promotion. So I don’t condemn anyone who does enter into so unfavorable an agreement — rather, I would hope that action by those of us who can afford to take our work elsewhere, or simply make it available for free, will lead to the elimination of such exploitative contracts altogether. I would advise all academic writers to look carefully at their contracts, before they commit themselves.

I will also not be buying any OUP books in the future — which is something of a sacrifice, as they are an important press. [I recently purchased from OUP, at an exorbitant price, the important new book by Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes From Powers -- which I hope to write about on this blog or in some other forum soon. Should a future situation of this sort arise, I will just have to bite the bullet and wait until I can get a copy through interlibrary loan. I don't really expect that libraries will stop buying OUP books, and I think the dissemination of scholarship is important, so I cannot really say that I will refuse to read anything, no matter how important, just because it is published by OUP. But I do think buying less from them might have an impact on their profit line, and thus pressure them to cease their unfair practices].

As for my article itself — which is 8500 words long, which contains substantial arguments not found in anything else that I have written, and which cost me two months of my life — I will try to find another venue for it to appear in print. I will eventually make it available for free download from my own website as well (as I have done with most of my writings), but it still seems unfortunately to be the case that academic writings are not taken seriously if they do not have some “official” form of publication.

[This posting has now been translated into Haitian Creole by John Obri -- for which much thanks.]

Work for Hire?

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Here we go again. I was asked to sign a contract for an essay I have written, which is scheduled to appear in an edited collection. Let’s leave aside the fact that I wrote the essay — it was solicited for this collection — in summer 2010, and yet it will not appear in print until 2013. I think that the glacial pace of academic publishing is a real problem. But that is not what is bothering me at the moment. The contract that I was asked to sign, so that my essay could appear in an edited volume published by Oxford University Press, contained the following clause:

WORK-FOR-HIRE. The Contributor acknowledges that the Publisher has commissioned the Contribution as a work-for-hire, that the Publisher will be deemed the author of the Contributior as employer-for-hire, and that the copyright in the Contribution will belong to the Publisher during the initial and any renewal or extended period(s) of copyright. To the extent, for any reason, that the Contribution or any portion thereof does not qualify or otherwise fails to be a work-for-hire, theContributor hereby assigns to the Publisher whatever right, title and interest the Contributor would otherwise have in the Contribution throughout the world.

I found this entirely unbelievable, and unacceptable. Since when has original academic writing been classified as “work-for-hire”? It is possible, I suppose, that things like writing encyclopedia essays might be so categorized; but I have never, in my 30 years in academa, encountered a case in which primary scholarship or criticism was so classified. Is this something widespread, but which I simply haven’t heard about? I’d welcome information on this score from people who know more about the academic publishing situation than I do. But it seems to me, at first glance, that the Press is upping the ante in terms of trying to monopolize “intellectual property,” by setting up an arrangement that both cuts off the public from access and denies any rights to the henceforth-proletarianized “knowledge worker” or producer. I am unwilling to countenance such an abridgement of my ability to make the words that I have written more freely available.
In any case, I wrote back to the Press as follows:
I am unwilling to sign the Contributor’s Agreement for my submission to the Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics as it is currently worded. In particular, I find section 2, defining my contribution as work-for-hire, completely objectionable. I entirely reject the notion that original academic work of this sort can be defined as work-for-hire. I think that this is demeaning to academic scholarship and disrespectful of intellectual labor.

Section 2 of the contract further stipulates that even if “the Contribution or any portion thereof does not qualify or otherwise fails to be a work-for-hire, the Contributor hereby assigns to the Publisher whatever right, title and interest the Contributor would otherwise have in the Contribution throughout the world.” I find this objectionable as well. Even if my contribution to the volume is exempted from being considered work-for-hire, I am unwilling to sign over my own rights to the publisher in this unlimited way. In particular, I insist upon retaining, among other rights, the right to make my contribution available for download on my own website and the right to include this contribution at some later date as part of a self-authored publication. 

I guess we will see what happens. I hope the Press backs down and offers more reasonable terms. If that doesn’t happen, I will simply have to withdraw my contribution from the edited volume. At some point, the essay will appear on my website for free download — whether because the publisher backs down and permits me to do this, or whether I give up on print publication.
Not getting the essay into print will mean that I won’t get the credit (or a line in my Vita) for the publication of an article that I am, in fact, rather proud of. This kind of credit matters in academia — salaries, among other things, are based on it. But as a full Professor with tenure I am in a rather privileged position: I can afford to lose the credit. The same is not the case for academics in more precarious positions — who might well be forced to sign away their rights in cases like this, because their jobs heavily depend upon their publication record, and one additional line on their Vita might make a major difference. 

Newt / Oulipo

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

I published this on Google Plus some time ago, but I thought I should also post it here. The current ascendency of the egregious Newt Gingrich, now supposedly the front-runner for the Republican nomination, brings me back to the time when he was Speaker of the House. At the time I was making heavy use of an anagram-generating program, and it turned out that there were better anagrams for “Newton Leroy Gingrich” (his full legal name) than for nearly any other name or phrase I tried out. This inspired me to write a poem, founded in the Oulipo-style rule that every line had to be an anagram of Newt’s full name:

We’re crooning nightly,
Renewing thorny logic,
Cheerily noting wrong.
Coiling energy, thrown.

Wrongly enticing hero,
Ongoing wintry lecher,
Reigning theory clown,
Whining electron orgy
Growing incoherently.

David Graeber on Debt

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

I am reprinting here my short review of David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, which I originally posted on Google Plus last summer. Among other reasons, because the book is more relevant than ever today, given the Occupy movement.

David Graeber’s Debt The First Five Thousand Years is a brilliant and powerful book; and even, I would say, a crucial one. Graeber does several things. He shows how the notion of “debt” has been integral to any notion of an “economy.” He traces the history of debt, both as an economic concept and as a metaphor for other forms of social engagement, back to the Mesopotamian civilizations of thousands of years ago. He traces the changes in how debt is conceived, and how economic exchange is organized, in various Eurasian civilizations and societies since then. And he contrasts these relations of economy and debt to those that existed (and still exist to some extent) in non-state societies (the ones that anthropologists tend to study). He takes account of Braudel’s claim that markets have long existed outside of and apart from capitalism — but shows that such markets have only improved life for all, rather than enforcing vicious social stratification through the imposition and collection of debts, when they have been grounded in a cooperative ethos, rather than a harshly competitive one. And he shows that the existence of virtual currency and virtual debt is not just a recent phenomenon, but has deep historical roots — it is hard currency, rather than virtual accounting, that is the more recent (and shallower) innovation.

Several important conclusions emerge from Graeber’s meticulous work of comparison and reconstruction. One (not surprisingly for me) is to expose the ridiculous parochialism of the notions of Homo oeconomicus, of self-interested “rational choice,” etc., which have dominated Western social thought since Adam Smith. Another is to show that “market” and “state” have always been closely intertwined, and indeed that neither can exist without the other — exactly the contrary to the current ideology which sees state and market as opposed. Graeber also shows how the moralization of debt and indebtedness — the notion that one’s moral standing depends upon one’s readiness to pay what one owes — is a shoddy myth of fairly recent invention. In general, debt (as the financialization and quantification of formerly much broader notions of community and mutual obligation) has only existed to the extent that it has been enforced by massive, organized violence — Graeber draws a straight line from the genocidal violence of the Spanish conquistadors and North Atlantic slave traders of early modernity to the policing of work relations, and the management and containment of political protest today. 

Graeber’s book is well-written, and entirely accessible to a general (non-specialist, non-academic) audience. Its calmness, lucidity, and careful sifting of evidence only add power to its ultimately quite radical condemnation of the total barbarity and oppressiveness of our contemporary society and civilization, and of the values that we unthinkingly take for granted. 

Graeber is an anarchist rather than a marxist; and his approach is quite different from any sort of traditional marxist one. Nonetheless, I think that what he does can be accommodated alongside marxist concerns. For one thing, the book closely links forms of domination (whether by violence or imposed consensus) to forms of economic oppression (this in contrast to the way that so many recent academic studies have tended to separate the former from the latter, and ignore the latter entirely). Secondly, although Graeber is largely concerned with circulation (rather than, as Marx was, with the hidden depths of production), he entirely demystifies circulation and distribution, and shows the social forces (often violent and inegalitarian) that work through them, rather than idealizing the supposed autonomy of circulation and exchange, as mainstream bourgeois social science usually does. (Graeber makes quite explicit what other anthropologists have known for a long time — that Smith’s claim for a basic human propensity to “truck, barter, and exchange” is ridiculous and incredibly parochial). 

So I think that Graeber’s long history of debt and currency has a lot to offer marxism, and vice versa. Graeber’s accounts of precapitalist economic formations and their relation to capitalism point to important dimensions that most marxist historians have failed to take into account. On the other hand, I find Graeber’s account of the current crises to be not entirely adequate. He is right that debt is at the center of current processes of dispossession, and the movements that have striven to oppose this. But I think that Graeber’s insights here need to be supplemented by more explicitly marxist accounts of capital accumulation and continuing, intensified exploitation (cf David Harvey on “appropriation by dispossession”, and Fredric Jameson on the production of massive unemployment and hence imporverishment as a necessary corollary of intensified surplus-value extraction).

Hyperbolic Futures

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

My essay “Hyperbolic Futures” attempts to think about the ways that speculative fiction (i.e. science fiction) works in relation to speculative finance (of the sort that has screwed us over in the last several years). I take a look back at my 2003 book Connected, Or What It Means To Live in the Network Society, and think about what has changed in the world, and in SF’s relation to the world, since then. And I discuss two recent, great SF novels in particular: Richard K. Morgan’s Market Forces, and Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland.

The article was published in the excellent SF journal Cascadia Subduction Zone, published four times a year by Aqueduct Press. Each issue is published both in hardcopy and in pdf, and the pdf version is released free on the Internet six months after intial publication. The issue that includes my article (volume 1, # 2) is now available for free download, here.


Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

I leave tomorrow for Milwaukee, to take part in the Debt Conference sponsored by the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.  My own talk is about how neoliberal “capitalist realism” leads to the situation in which, as Deleuze put it, “a man is no longer a man confined but a man in debt.”  Everything without exception is subject to cost-benefit analysis and enforced competition.

Speaking of capitalist realism and neoliberal logic — I can only add my voice to that of others in opposing the idiotic and venal decision to close the philosophy program at Middlesex University — as recounted here and here and here.

Roddey Reid on the culture of bullying

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

My friend Roddey Reid has published a great article on the public culture of bullying that has arisen in the United States in recent years. In the light of recent “tea party” activities, I think that the article is even more relevant now than it was when it was first published a year and a half ago.

Roddey has made the article available for free downloading:

Original version, published in 2008

French-language version

Revised and expanded “tea party” version

Peter Watts alert

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Peter Watts is a brilliant science fiction writer — I have written about all four of his novels on this blog (Starfish, Maelstrom, Behemoth, and (at greatest length) Blindsight).

Earlier this week, returning home to Canada from the US, Watts was assaulted for no good reason by US Homeland Security guards at the border, and charged with a felony for supposedly assaulting a Federal officer. Cory Doctorow has the whole story at BoingBoing, here. Watts’ own account of the incident is here.

Watts was released on bail, and is back home in Toronto, but he needs money for his legal defense. I am going to make a contribution, and I urge all everyone reading this to do likewise. (There are details on how to contribute on the BoingBoing page I cited already).

This is something that could happen to anybody, given how security mania connected with the so-called “war on terror” has become so completely excessive and out of control. But it sort of hits home when I see this happening to somebody whose work I greatly admire. (I do not know Watts personally, though I exchanged email messages with him once).

Some Thoughts on the Crisis

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

A short article of mine, “A Modest Proposal: Some Thoughts on the Crisis,” is finally online here, as part of “Representing the crisis / Representing Debt,” a special issue of the Greek online journal Re-Public: Reimagining Democracy. (The Greek translation of my article is here).


Saturday, September 26th, 2009

I think that Hardt/Negri are right when they suggest that a contemporary analysis of “the organic composition of capital” will involve great attention, not just to what capitalist corporations do internally, but to the “externalities” that greatly affect “the increase and decrease of value” (Commonwealth 141). But there is rather a too easy slide from this to the claim that “capital is increasingly external to the productive process and the generation of wealth. In other words, biopolitical labor is increasingly autonomous” (141). These two statements are not equivalent. The first one means that what is being expropriated from workers is not just their eight hours a day of labor power, but their entire body and soul, with all the knowledges and practices that are parts of the common lifeworld that informs them, and that they inherit. In this sense, it is perfectly true that predatory capital is extorting wealth today to an enormous extent through continuing “primitive accumulation”, and through what might be considered a sort of “ground-rent” on what was up till recently the commons,or general culture, until it was appropriated in the form of “intellectual property.” But — where Hardt/Negri say that “the exploitation of labor-power should be understood in terms of not profit but capitalist rent” (141), they really should have said “as well as” rather than “not… but.”

Hardt/Negri then make a sort of rhetorical slide when they move from the (correct) claim that capital is increasingly exploiting the entire life-world of the multitude, to the (highly dubious) claim that, therefore: “rather than an organ functioning within the capitalist body, biopolitical labor-power is becoming more and more autonomous, with capital simply hovering over it parasitically with its disciplinary regimes, apparatuses of capture, mechanisms of expropriation, financial networks, and the like” (142). The problem here is that capital has always been “parasitic” in this sense. Industrial production was/is no more “organic” than the current regime of immaterial production. (That is, unless you get rid of the old-fashioned, idealistic notion of what is “organic”, and understand that the relationship of parasite to host is itself entirely something “organic”). It is not as if workers in call centers and workers hired through temp agencies somehow have more autonomous control over what they are doing than workers on a factory assembly line. What we are still seeing is the expropriation of relative surplus-value.

The ambiguity here relates especially to the idea of the “real subsumption” of labor under capital. I think that Hardt/Negri are right to see the intensifying movement from merely formal subsumption to real subsumption as a characteristic of the current order. I agree entirely with them that today “capital might be said to subsume not just labor but society as a whole or, really, social life itself, since life is both what is put to work in biopolitical production and what is produced” (142). But I cannot for the life of me see how this can be inverted into the assertion that, therefore, “capital is increasingly external and has an ever less functional role in the production process” (142). (“Functional” is a strange word here. Capital is always dysfunctional in the sense that, as Marx often says, it introduces faux frais into the process of social reproduction. But it is highly functional in the sense that it coercively organizes production to the end of more intensive expropriation — I am inclined to agree with Max Weber that the whole point of capitalism, in contrast to earlier modes of expropriation, is that it “rationally” organizes its extortion). With real subsumption, the coercive organization of all life by capital for the purpose of increased expropriation is, if anything, intensifed beyond what it ever was in the time of merely formal subsumption.

Hardt/Negri can thus be denounced as guilty of the old Marxist sin of  “economism”, to the extent that they seem to argue that the advance of capitalist exploitation, in itself, somehow objectively leads to a situation in which the multitude (proletariat) becomes autonomous and is able to take the production and reproduction of life into its own hands. They even say that “the exercise of capitalist control is increasingly becoming a fetter to the productivity of biopolitical labor” (143); this is just a new formulation of the old idea, from the earlier Marx, that capitalism is doomed to collapse because the relations of production turn into fetters on the development of the forces of production. This is a position that Marx himself later nuances and problematizes greatly, and perhaps rejects entirely.

I think that Hardt/Negri’s claims that the current form of capitalist control interfere with productivity needs to be modified. They identify three trends that are needed in order for capitalism to control production, but that in fact limit production (145ff): destroying and appropriating the common fetters or reduces production, as does “precarization” of labor, and as does the enforcement of borders and the limitation of labor mobility. I am not convinced that these trends really cripple productivity in the way that Hardt/Negri say; rather, they all work to insure profits by transforming abundance into scarcity. Such measures do indeed lead to crises, as has been the case for the entire history of capitalism; but do such crises actually herald the end of capitalism?

I think not. Indeed, Hardt/Negri themselves quite accurately note that the inevitable, and repeated, economic crises of capitalism do not lead to collapse, but rather offer opportunities for capital to reorganize itself on a more intensive basis: “capital works by breaking down, or, rather, through creative destruction achieved by crises. In contemporary neoliberal economic regimes, in fact, crisis and disaster have become ever more important as levers to privatize public goods and put in place new mechanisms for capitalist accumulation” (143). It is extremely odd, therefore, that in the same paragraph where they observe this, they also argue that “subjective” crises, as opposed to “objective” ones, do indeed threaten the survival of capitalism by means of the contradiction between relations and forces of production. In Hardt/Negri’s own context, this distinction makes no sense. For all that they proclaim their allegiance to a Deleuzian affirmationism rather than to the old Hegelian vision of “the negation of the negation,” Hardt/Negri are in fact relying on a facile dialectical reversal in the bad old Hegelian manner.

“Economism”, in the Marxist tradition, has generally meant a belief in the inevitability of the fall of capitalism, and the birth of socialism, through objective economic laws alone. And I do think that Hardt/Negri can be charged with this, for all their claims to be radically rewriting Marx in accordance with the changed configuration of capitalism we face today. At the same time, I think that Hardt/Negri are right in their attention to economic processes, or to the accumulation of capital; in contrast to the way that Badiou, for instance, entirely dismisses such concerns, and turns instead to a romantic and mystical hyper-voluntarism. I think that Hardt/Negri are in fact at their best and most helpful when they discuss the “metamorphoses of the composition of capital” (Commonwealth 131-149); if only we leave out that twist of dialectical reversal at the end by which they endeavor to rescue things.

What I propose, therefore, is indeed a renewed “economism” — only without the sense of historical inevitability tacked on at the end. I haven’t really seen any arguments about agency, or about organization, that are more than futile compensatory fantasies. I think economism is of value, to the extent that at least it lets us see clearly what is going on, what the situation is, in which we are enmeshed. Economism would correspond, therefore, to Jameson’s famous call for a “cognitive mapping” of the world system of capital. It is necessary in order to account for the ascendency of finance capital in the present moment. It would let us better understand what has happened as the latest crisis has once again allowed for the reorganization and further consolidation of capital, rather than leading to even minimal changes in its oppressive functioning.

The positive functioning of “economism” is all rather vague for the moment — let’s just say it is something I am starting to explore and work on. I think that the whole subjective/objective opposition, which Hardt/Negri retain as a legacy of Hegelianism, needs to be questioned in the light of speculative realism’s attack on correlationism. The point would not be to get rid of the strong sense that economic arrangements are matters of concern for human beings in particular, but to understand the workings of such arrangements in a different way. I do not think that Marxist capital logic needs to be confined to the Hegelian framework, even if this framework is where he started out from. (Apologies for the vagueness of these final propositions; I am only at the beginning of thinking about them. Stay tuned).