Saturday, July 22, 2006

Television & New Media

My essay "Disowning Commodities: Ebooks, Capitalism, and Intellectual Property Law" was just published in the August 2006 issue of Television and New Media. Here's a copy of the abstract and a link to the table of contents:

This article explores the changing social function of commodities in the United States by exploring the conditions of possibility of electronic books, or "ebooks." By juxtaposing the history of printed books and consumer capitalism on the one hand and the history of ebooks on the other, this article maps an emergent configuration of capitalism, technology, and intellectual property law. Together, these histories evidence how the widespread private ownership of mass-produced consumer goods has grown increasingly problematic from the standpoint of capitalist production—an understanding embedded in many, if not most, commercially available ebook texts and devices. In addition to showing how the category of "private property" is destabilized in relationship to ebooks and other digital technologies, this article strategizes how best to articulate a vital, progressive politics in light of changing material and economic conditions.


Ron Greene said...

congrats ted, got a pdf to send my way. peace Ron

Ntumbi said...

Hey Ted,

Just had a chance to read your “Disowning Commodities” text and particularly liked your historical overview of knowledge commodification (all that bookcase jazz and how U$ publishers actually reprinted foreign texts for a profit…the same shit they’re now ranting against folks in other countries doing was all news to me). Good stuff, good stuff.

I do, however, find it a tad too convenient that you don’t actively situate your own text within the context with which it deals (perhaps inadvertently, or to avoid the risk of being self-referential ;)). That is to say, when you’re talking about Gibson’s Agrippa (p. 247) or about self-destructing restrictions in digital music files (p. 256), you don’t mention that at least some versions of your text are indeed plagued by the same restrictions.

Consider: Your text is available from Sage Publications here: Of course, it’s not available for free (this seems to be the standard modus operandi within the walls of the academy: publish shit in absurdly priced journals, assuring that only those with the funds to spare can legally access your writings). Instead, there is a ‘short-term access’ option available on the site: “You may access this article (from the computer you are currently using) for 1 day for US$15.00.” Now, I’m not about to piss away US$15.00 to find out if my theory is true or not, so this’ll have to be pure conjecture, but I’m betting that the file (probably a PDF) that one can download for 24 hour access will have Adobe’s latest DRM doohickey, which effectively renders the file unreadable 24-hours after activation of the certificate you’ll likely be required to download to even open the file.

Thus, my question effectively boils down to: how the fuck does this particular publication scheme, which you support and therefore legitimize, jive with the conclusion of your text? [wherein you state that “ebooks offer a valuable way in which to explore the history and constitutive relations of contemporary capitalism, how possibly to go about transforming those relations, and how then to begin to engender a more economically democratic, sustainable, and just society.” (p. 254)]

I don’t understand :(

Ted Striphas said...


First off, thanks for reading and enjoying my article on ebooks. I agree with you about the historical parts of the text, which indeed are my favorite, too. It's always easier to reflect on conditions, I find, rather than to speculate about contemporary or future possibilities.

Your critique of my article is a pointed one, and one I don't take lightly. Increasingly, I find myself filled with misgivings about the nature of academic publishing and the directions in which it's headed. I do find some solace, though, in the various experiments in which some people are engaging, such as those at the Institute for the Future of the Book, to challenge many of the concerns I raise in my essay. I'm also increasingly intrigued by on-demand publishing, which is finally starting to seem viable.

A few specific responses to your comments: first, you may or may not know that it's customary for academic authors to sign away their copyrights and thus pretty much any rights to their work. I managed to get Sage to agree let me retain copyright, however, though for some reason the piece as printed doesn't reflect that. (I'm in the midst of following up with Sage as to why.) I asked them to retain copyright not because I want to control the social life of the piece, but in fact for just the opposite reason: so that the social life of the piece might, in the end, be more sociable. Also, FYI, Kembrew McLeod and I negotiated with Routledge, publisher of the special issue of the journal Cultural Studies we recently co-edited on the politics of intellectual properties, to release the contents of the isssue free-of-charge on our websites after 6 months. This will happen in September, so make sure to check back.

Second, I published the piece in TVNM knowing that it would end up in electronic form, though the limited access feature you note is news to me. Sage must have implemented it relatively recently; I wasn't aware that they had, and to tell you the truth I'm rather disappointed to hear about it. That said, I posted the abstract of the piece on my blog for reasons that should be pretty obvious. I'd also note that the journal doesn't only exist in electronic form; it's also still produced in hardcopy. Rember what I had to say in "Disowning Commodities" about "the trouble with--or maybe the best part about--photocopying"...?

Third, I think you're looking for a purity of politics in the world of analog and digital media that doesn't exist today...or maybe ever. Does my publishing an anti-DRM screed in TVNM make me a hypocrite by virtue of their use of DRM schemes? Or is my doing so a calculated effort at imminent critique, given that the piece takes issue with Sage's own practices from within the Sage publishing machine? Or perhaps it's both?

Finally, it's worth mentioning the political strategy I put forth in the piece, namely, that IP law needs to be changed in ways that exceed the legal--or for that matter, the digital--realm. Feed "the system" in one way, but do your best to undermine it in as many other ways as possible.

Ntumbi, thanks again very much for your comments. They've given me a lot to think about, especially in clarifying my own position on IP and digital publishing. Let's keep the dialogue open.