Reading Around: Common Voices and Stir

New issues of two of my favorite journals have come out.  Time to check out some fascinating articles on commons-related themes.  First, an introduction to the two publications, Common Voices and Stir to Action.

Stir to Action – with the tagline, “Anger.  Analysis.  Action” – is a scrappy, fiercely smart quarterly that prowls the cultural and political frontier that few other publications cover.  Stir is published and edited by Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh in the UK.  Stir understands, citing Nathan Schneider, that “politics is not a matter of choosing among what we’re offered but of fighting for what we and others actually need, not to mention what we hope for.”  While established political journals handicap the horserace with smarty-pants/cynical commentary, Gordon-Farleigh has shown just how much fresh, uncovered political innovation there really is out there.  It's not just that "another world is possible," he writes, but that "another world is happening."

Stir deliberately avoids “the disproportionate fixation on Washington and London [that] produces mere spectators who can only rely on financial and political elites to save them and who can only be disappointed and failed by them.  This read-only political culture dominates our experience of our options and choices, and the German comedian Klaus Hansen expresses this reversible point in terms of commercial sport — “Football is like democracy: twenty-two people playing and millions watching.”  As Stephen Duncombe says in his interview, “It’s not enough to change people’s minds.  You have to change the social, political and economic structures in which they live.” 

So Stir gets out of London, avoids the venerable pundits and pols, and gets out on the street, and even ventures abroad.  In the latest issue, cultural anthropologist Marianne Maeckelbergh has a thoughtful piece about the horizontal decision-making process in the Occupy movement.  Maeckelbergh, who has participated in such processes in Barcelona, New York and Oakland, describes the history of participatory decisionmaking models and the rationale for them at Occupy gatherings.  She writes:  “In order to create new political structures we actually have to let go of certain economic relations which we take as given. For example, horizontal decision-making does not work when we assume a) that resources are scarce, b) that we therefore need to compete with each other and c) ownership is an exclusionary relation – a proprietary relation.”

But she also notes that a focus on “process” can be counterproductive:  “[T]he more we try to set the rules in stone, to find the ‘golden key’, the ideal set of procedures, the more we disengage from the central political questions of how we decide – a terrain of politics that has to remain open if it is to remain horizontal. In order for a ‘general assembly’ to be productive, effective and empowering to participants, the procedures have to maintain a certain degree of flexibility as the circumstances in which we find ourselves shift….”

Also in Stir is a characteristically insightful piece by Glyn Moody, the free software/Internet blogger/journalist, about the recent uprising of Internet users against Hollywood and record labels in the U.S., in response to pending legislation that would expand copyright law and enforcement on the Internet.

Common Voices is another great read on commons themes.  Published quarterly by the Foundation for Ecological Security in Gujarat, India, Common Voices invariably has concept-busting articles about all sorts of unexpected and novel commons themes.  It is refreshing to hear about the commons from the perspective of Indians, who stand far enough away from American and European thinking and yet can communicate in dazzling English.  The latest issue, No. 8, (pdf file) is devoted to some bracing perspectives on knowledge commons. 

I was thrilled by a brief essay by social scientist and science critic Shiv Visvanathan, who sees the commons as a versatile vehicle for re-imagining our future.  He writes:  “One of the great tributes to the idea and functioning of the commons came from the great Scottish biologist and sociologist Patrick Geddes, who observed that if Karl Marx had understood better the idea of the commons, the fate of socialism would have been different.” 

Visvanathan calls for “cognitive justice” in thinking about knowledge commons – that is, we need to recognize that there are different forms of expertise and knowledge that need to be honored.  A commons is valuable, he writes, because it invites a pluralism of knowledge and practices to co-exist.  This means that no single medium of communication or “political epistemology” can dominate:  “The oral is as critically life giving as the textual and the digital,” Visvanathan writes.  He continues: 

“A commons resists the hegemony of any form of knowledge, even science.  A commons thus has a place for knowledges and refuses to marginalize them.  A commons in that sense is always a compost heap of knowledges.  It does not museumize knowledge but allows marginal and exotic cultures to reinvent themselves…..A knowledge commons combines both a theory of resistance and the dream of alternatives.  A knowledge commons is not merely a dream of defiance, denial and resistance or a subaltern sense of possibilities challenging hegemony.  It is also the availability of alternative paradigms which offer plural grammars and practices….”

I especially liked Visvanathan’s idea that “an intellectual commons allows for a multiplicity of time.  This is essential for three reasons.  One, a commons provides a tacit theory of justice by resisting obsolescence, especially that of cultures and the knowledge forms they contain.  Secondly, a commons has to have an ethics of memory.  It cannot store information in one order of time.  Myth, folklore and legend are as valid as any other attempt to scrutinize history.  A knowledge commons recognizes that while the truth might be one, its forms and cultures are many.  The idea of the commons also realizes that the multiplicity of knowledeges requires a plurality of times to encode them.  For example, the logic of shifting cultivation cannot be enacted in linear time.  The diversity of rice in India needs a diversity of time, including the time of myth and festival to sustain it.  You cannot build diversity on secular homogenous time.  A theory of sustainability built on linear time is almost oxyomoronic.” 

Wow. The same issue of Common Voices has an interesting piece by Harro Maat on the System of Rice Intensification, a kind of open source agriculture; and the idea of “knowledge Swaraj (self-rule) in India, which is based on a landmark Indian manifesto that calls for the self-rule of India’s science and technology, independent of the dictates of multi-national actors and external research systems.”  I also have a piece in the issdue on “Exclusive Control or Sharing:  Which Creates Greater Value on the Internet?” which reflects on the unresolved tensions between copyright control and open sharing online.

Check out the other great pieces in both Commons Voices and Stir.  Happy reading!