[iDC] "recursive publics"

Gabriella Coleman biella at nyu.edu
Sat Jul 11 18:38:49 UTC 2009

> At this point, I don't find the term recursive publics useful. I reviewed Warner's book a number of years ago and have a critique of his use of publics. My book Publicity's Secret goes through the Habermasian
> version of the concept and criticizes that. 

I look froward to reading it Jodi: can't you let me know where it is? I 
enjoyed your book Publicity's Secret immensely (as well as Warner's) so 
I would like to see you take.

What's particularly fascinating in Chris's version is the way that a 
'mindset' shared by a group of technocrats who are not accountable to 
anyone but themselves can somehow position itself as a 'public', 
presumably carrying with it the moral/political connotations from the 
18th century. This is alarming in part because this group/mindset is 
pro-capitalist yet positions itself as somehow
> neutral.  (Fred Turner's critical approach to the rise of cyberculture provides an important contrast to the kind of account Chris gives).

I see the two books  as complementary only in so far as they trace 
different trajectories, lineages that are alive and kicking among 
cyber-enthusiastic and geeks. It is hard to boil this world to either 
analysis given the multiple strands of influences in geekdom, many of 
which have yet to be unearthed.

> Chris's idea of 'massive distributed regulatory action' sounds to me like another way of talking about the way 

that complex states work--accept for the fact that the regulations have 
not been
> discussed or chosen  by anyone who is accountable to an electorate and for the fact that the 
regulations are the one's that the 'geeks' themselves want to make. It 
makes me think about the
> finance sector as a group of institutions carrying out a 'massive distributed regulatory action'--which actually meant that that made as much money as they could for as long as they could until
> they crashed, taking the rest of the world down with them.

There are parallels here when it comes to experts, to be sure but I 
think the difference in part has to do with regulatory capture. There 
are no lobbyist pushing for open source this or that, as there is with 
the pharmaceutical industry, as there is with ... well, every industry.

The trade associations from BSA to PrRMA, to everything in between push 
for policies that benefit them, completely hide their agenda, and have 
massive amounts of dollars and political clout to do this. Geeks in 
their participation with projects do not engage in this sort of stuff, 
which is one key difference to make between, the finance sector (and the 
banks, the firms) and projects like Ubuntu, the Kernel etc.

> Chris says:  " most geeks believe in some version of capitalism--indeed, many want to save capitalism from the capitalists."

> If that's the case then I want to be part of a movement (but not a recursive public) that will save us from the geeks.

I don't want to champion geeks but I think it is important to qualify 
Chris' statement and also recognize the diversity of so-called geeks.
As it operates in most Free Software projects, the question of embracing 
capitalism as well as fighting capitalism is bracketed.

That is, many developers recognize that since there are geeks 
participating of every political stripe in the project, it is best to 
keep the question of fighting for or against capitalism (or other 
political fights) at the project door. It is for this reason that you 
have anti capitist geeks from the Riseup project, from May First, who 
are Debian developers as well as dollar loving silicon valley 

One may question this validity of this strain of political agnosticism, 
as I have called it elsewhere, but it is also important to note that 
these projects are not configured so as to be pro-capitalist.


Gabriella Coleman, Assistant Professor
Department of Media, Culture, & Communication
New York University
239 Greene St, 7th floor
NY NY 10003

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