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Hic Rhodus, Hic Salta! Where Fork, Where Jump

This very long and rambling essay was initially written for a presentation at the Reconciliation Works in Progress at the Shingwauk Centre, Algoma University, Sault Ste Marie. It has been reworked since.

Thank you to Reworks organizers Sophie McCall, Jonathan Dewar, Ashok Mathur, Steve Loft and Trina Cooper Bolam; to our hosts the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and Algoma University; and to my friends and colleagues—new and old.

Preamble

It is an honour to be invited to this inspired and inspiring gathering. Among so many acclaimed artists, writers, and thinkers, in the context of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, I am humbled by the opportunity to reflect on my engagement with digital platforms and how I see them relating to the daunting challenges of re/conciliation, “progress” and the legacies of the Residential School System.

Coming here, I have been thinking about home and family, and the journeys that frame my speaking and knowing. Returning from Vancouver, where I live as an unsettled settler on unceded Coast Salish land, to Toronto, where I grew up and where my family lives, and then traveling on to Sault Ste. Marie, I was struck by the landscape and how comfortable I feel moving through. This identification is both integral to my work and troubling.

Flying in, I tracked the St. Marys River. I imagined a line that reaches back to the shores of the Lake Huron, down to Lake Ontario, back the east end of Toronto. I thought about how the first 20 of my life were spent in a home overlooking the lake, tuned to its sounds, sights, smells—each day walking to and from school, away from and back to the lake. I was reminded that much of my life is oriented to the water, I began to rehearse a litany of lakes and rivers.

I thought of great grandparents traveling north on the Trail of the Conestoga, settling by the Speed River outside of Guelph, or North of Toronto around Musselman’s lake. I remembered others who left Ireland early in the 20th century to settle in Toronto east of the Don River. I thought of my great grandmother who came to Canada with the name of the Protestant Minister who took her in, and her son (my grandfather) who fondly reminisced about marching in the Orangemen’s parade each July, celebrating King William crossing the Boyne. I thought of how deep these colonial investments are, how I can barely scratch the surface of my own geography without bumping up against these historical struggles.

Turning west, imagining the miles of shoreline arcing around Lake Superior, I thought of all the rivers and lakes that remain unknown to me, unnamed in any kind of family lore. I’m dumbfounded by the thought of the all stories and history that shared around these waters. I think about the economies of knowledge that are shaped by these lakes and by the First Nations who have lived on and around them for so long.

The specificities of settler histories are but aspects of Canada’s complex colonial geography. Coming here, I have crossed so many territories, those protected by Treaty as well as those unceded to any crown or colonial nation. As I think of the narratives of class, religion, race and nation that underwrite my upbringing and education, I am struck by my tenuous grasp on the histories of resistance and healing shared by Aboriginal, Inuit and Métis survivors of the Residential school system. I am angry about how ill prepared I feel to participate in these larger conversations.

I try to imagine all the different economies of light. Years ago when I wrote my dissertation, I borrowed an epigraph from painter, sculptor, poet, photographer Roy Kiyooka:

the light that obtains in any given place permeates what is made there.

And at different times, I have thought or felt I know what this means. Looking at artworks, reading certain texts, I have sensed a strong connection to particular places and times. I have tried to let this guide my work.

As a way of concluding this rambling preface, I may says that my forays into online platform building come from a curiosity and how “the light that obtains in any given place” travels across the world—at the speed of light. I’m fascinated by how the traces of reflected light—lakes, trees, clouds—continues to underwrite the new spatial practices afforded us by the internet and emerging digital workflows.

Thoughts on the Reworks Platform

I’ve written an essay, but it is more descriptive of some of the terrain I’ve been traveling through than prescriptive. And I’m hoping that some of the ideas that I float might help to generate discussion and move toward something dynamic—on and off line.

Not a Website

When I met with the organizers (Ashok, Jonathan, Sophie and Steve) in the fall to talk about my contribution to this project, I said I wasn’t interested in building a website. Fresh off mildly disappointing projects and more than a few brainstorming sessions on mobile devices, cross-platform content creation, and e-publishing, I was sick of the hype–sick of the promise that websites, social media, iPad/iPhone apps and ebooks were the answer to our communication needs.

When I said I didn’t want to build a website, only a website, I remember Sophie looking a little bemused. After all, I’d been brought in as a web dude, responsible for the project website. So I offered an alternative—”I like the idea of interlocking platforms,” I said. I’d like to help build “interlocking platforms.” Sounded good. It was agreed that’s what I/we’d do. Ever since, however, i’ve been wracking my brain, trying to figure out what that it means to create interlocking platforms. As this event got closer, I started becoming panicky. What’s a platform? How are they going to interlock? What’s any of this have to do with truth & reconciliation?

What’s wrong with a website? Nothing really. A good website, like a a good map, good library, good encyclopedia, good movie channel, good photo album, good catalogue etc. is a good thing. I like websites, use them in my teaching and research all the time.

  • INC: Institute of Network Cultures: http://networkcultures.org
  • Bruno Latour’s site: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/
  • AAAAARG.ORG
  • birmingham complaints choir:

The problem is that many websites are not interesting, especially when they are linked to serious scholarly events. For years, every conference/symposium has had a website. But these sites seem to die with the event. The majority disappear or become repositories for bios and abstracts, a few pictures. The more ambitious will have video clips. Very few publish papers or proceedings.

This is not to criticize committed, well-meaning conference organizers who believe in the importance of their topic and esteemed colleagues ideas. It’s more an indictment of persistent hold of moribund systems of print culture/capital over new media productions. Like the 20 minute conference paper, the conference website it lost in translation from print to digital media. And we don’t really know how to break out of this.

There are sites that resist this kind of closure and I will get to these later in my talk; but if you can think of positive examples please write them down or share them back channel.

How do we reconcile the conference website with more popular and populist forms of web culture. As an antidote, I’d like to speculate on something wildly different: animal photobombs

For me an amazingly powerful example of this is the animal photobombers. http://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/greatest-animal-photobombers-of-all-time

While I’m not going to theorize animal photobombs, I want to point to a few instructive elements that help me to understand how the web works, or how the interlocking platforms of digital cameras, facebook/flickr photos, and google work:

  • folks like strange, entertaining stuff, almost as much as the instructive and heavy—play is better than or at least these unscheduled, unprogrammed interruptions seem to be more engaging the regularly scheduled, weekly broadcast.
  • users are not yet / not really in control of the camera’s auto-focus or self-timer functions
  • untamed tech is metaphorically connected to unruly animal subjects—both demonstrate a preoccupation with the limits of human agency, the frontiers of representation.
  • amazing numbers of people are willing to do the labour, be that a little or a lot, to make sure the stuff they likes gets seen
  • our mistakes are often more interested that the successes
  • the web is a visual medium
  • social media is responding to a vacuum—we like examples like the revolution in Egypt or resistance in Iran because they valorize the dross and help drive up the value of shares in Facebook, Twitter, Youtube.

There’s a lot more to say here and I don’t want to get sucked into a vortex of web-centralization conspiracy. Others have put a lot more systematic thought into this than I have. My point is rather simple: photobomb trumps conference website.

A Selection of Projects I’ve worked on

To give a sense of where I’m coming from it might The projects I was involved in were not bad. Instead, they’d left me with feeling that by themselves the website or app is not that interesting. The success or failure of a given, project I felt, was the potential for social connection or engagement. The tech is only as good as the capacity to engage or excite users and such is intrinsically content bound.

Let me give you 3 examples of projects I was/am involved with:

http://marayaprojects.com
http://current.ecuad.ca
http://speakingmytruth.ca

The least satisfying of these three projects is probably the most powerful and technologically sophisticated: Maraya. The resources—time, money, energy—that went into it versus its impact are no where near where I (or any of the key stakeholders, including my collaborating partners M. Simon Levin and Henry Tsang) anticipated or imagined.

Without getting too technical I should point a few aspects of this site: 1/ it has a state of the art, custom designed (Flash) visualization tool capable of allowing for on the fly layering, filtering, resizing, spinning of at least six videos. 2/ this site was built in Drupal 7.0 and allows for intergration with Facebook, Flickr, 3/ it is designed for user generated content and seeding with thousands of images and video generated in five years of researching relationships between Vancouver and Dubai. 4/ It is also driven by public programming in two gallery / museum spaces: namely Centre A and MOV.

So a far as websites go marayaprojects.ccom is a pretty good one or at least should be. The problem is that the complexity of the software and scope of the project are somewhat baffling to users. While we’ve had some success in workshops and teaching and we are continuing to build it out, it falters in terms of the good old fashion usability.

The next project, current, is an Emily Carr University-based multiplatform design journal I had the privilege of working as an advisor. This journal is part of the upper level design curriculum and driven by faculty-student collaborationx and labour. The end product is exemplary. The functionality and the integration of the different components—print journal, blog, iPad app—provide an excellent approach to cross-platform publishing. It also looks great.

From an editorial point of view, however, I think Current needs to evolve. The strength of its form has significant potential in terms of content. From my point of view, current needs to reach larger audiences; it needs to be driven by the interests and dialogues that are beyond the purview of the institution or class. I really want to see the content push the form, to disrupt the smooth transitions between platforms. To disconnect from the original design brief, in a way that gives it a life of its own.

The final example is speakingmytruth.ca An online platform for Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Residential School and Reconciliation. A collection of texts taken from the Aboriginal Healing Foundations Truth and Reconciliation research series edited by Marlene Brant Castellano, Linda Archibald Mike DeGagné, Jonathan Dewar, Gregory Younging, and Ashok Mathur that was selected and fronted by Shelagh Rogers.

In many ways, this is the least ambitious of the three sites and possibly the most successful. I’m not saying that because I played a larger role in its design, build, and implementation. Given the strength of the AHF material, vision of the editors, and talent of my collaborators (web developer Karen de Luna and designer Anja Braun), the success of the site seems inevitable I might be the weak link.

Nevertheless, this basically static site has been effective. In less than 6 months, it has enabled the distribution of nearly 11 thousand books. Given that 5 000 is a best seller in Canada this is no minor feat.

Granted the books are available free of charge and the AHF has been able to support their production and distribution. I’ve come to think about this site as a component or platform in an open source publishing venture, which is unlike open or free software movements is grounded in bricks and mortar, or print and paper. Based on the success of this site we are now working to put all 3 volumes on line in various forms.

From these, and other examples, I’ve begun to think about the need to stop over emphasizing the digital realm, to stop thinking in terms of new code and new software program as providing the fix. It seems that we need to give up on a blind faith in what Wendy Hui Kyong Chun calls ‘the logic of “sourcery”’ (qtd in Tkacz 99) or a reductive belief in the power and ubiquity of software.

The crux of my dilemma, how do we manage to work in this new context. I don’t have any clear answers and I’m hoping that as we come out the other end of this workshop/incubation process we might have a glimmer of how things might work. What might someday be possible? Or even better, what we might want.

“Forking”

With idea of what’s possible or desirable in mind, I want to shift gears to give you a sense of how this connects, or not, to some of the bigger issues at stake here. I feel I need to say something about my title.

Preparing this talk, I was reading about computational processes as metaphors for social organization, and I came across a Nathaniel Tkacz fascinating essay on “The Politics of Forking Paths.” As Tkacz describes it, forking “originally referred to an operating system process where the output of the process is a functional duplication of the process itself, thereby creating two separate but virtually identical processes” (96). He suggests that this idea of software spliting (forking) into identical copies is a key idea in the FOSS/FLOSS (Free (Libre) and Open Source Software) movement.

Focusing on the example of the Spanish Wikipedia group’s split from the larger Wikipedia movement into EL, Tkacz looks at how “this event is framed within a newly politicized discourse of ‘forking, the splitting a project to create two separate entities” (96). This wikipedia fork provides away to think through the slippage from software and political processes. And as Tkacz writes,

Forking represents a unique opportunity to make visible the messiness and modalities of force in these projects. It is a rare moment when the fundamental organizing principles of a project are put to the test and when possibly irreconcilable differences are foregrounded over values held in common.

The foregrounding of irreconcilability—which seems to me be at the crux of a host of political emergencies around Truth and Reconciliation, ecological disaster, economic devastation that are exacerbated by local neoliberalisms and the dehumanizing “Harper government”—is underwritten and infected by the idea a perfect copy. For Tkacz, forking is in direct contradiction of capitalist notions of scarcity, because, in theory, forking creates two identical entities out the exact same amount of resources—each entity might now exist with half the resources of the original. Forking, at least in principle, functions outside of the Hegelian dialectic of winners and losers. Tkacz talks of a politics of exit, in which the leaving party simply takes the code/process and sets up in a different space / time.

Eventually the two identical iterations morph into new projects and take on separate content. Pointing out the fact that, beyond a formal equivalence, the two forked entities were never really the same to begin with, Tkacz suggest that both are subject two different materialities. In the context of wikipedia and the FLOSS movement, he takes issue with the ideological use of “forking,” a computational term, to describe what are in essence social processes:

A consideration of forking also brings into view a series of questions about the ontological boundaries of open projects, questions that problematize the very possibility of forking and reveal the ‘making invisible’ of certain features of open projects necessary for the political discourse of forking to be preserved.

Making visible the social / material aspects underlying the wikipedia fork, he argues that even in its purest digital form that two forks are spatially and temporally distinct, existing on different hard drives or servers the are subject to significant material differences.  Tkacz wonders,

Is it possible to fork? From a formal perspective, the answer is ‘possibly yes’ but only by keeping forensic difference at bay and only if a shared understanding of source code or content preexists as the political essence of a project. It requires, that is, a kind of sourcery that might nonetheless create a sense of political satisfaction (if it is shared by all). From a forensic perspective, however, the answer is a definite ‘no’. Not only is the source itself not forkable, but it also cannot be seen as the essence of a project. The contributors are part of the project, as is the unique logo, but so too is the domain, the hosting, and the servers. It gets more difficult: What about the rules that underpin a project, its discussion pages, its users, or the people who donate money to it? Its material infrastructure? (p 100)

This theoretical argument points toward the confluence of new forms of social production, an ever growing complexification of computer code and the difficulty of disentangling it from everyday materialities, that helps me to consider my own disappointments with web development.

Turning Tkacz argument upside, shifting away from the focus of on the open source software movement to look at real political process, it seems to me that this notion of forking might help us thinking about how to break with political process or organization that attempt to circumscribe difference. If as Jeff Derksen argue neoliberal political process function as a kind of software for the continued concentration of capital and social stratification, how might aspect of this process be forked to create different outcomes and most importantly different social groupings.

For me the idea of forking goes some way to understanding how we might work with the web to shift it to function in ways that are central to our needs or wants. Seeing the code as a material entity (e.g. the website as a thing or space of assembly to borrow from Latour) requires consideration of the who, the where and the what. It also provides a means of think about how to recycle or reformulate of earlier ventures—codes or social processes.

So am I saying, find a great FOSS website or application and break with the original users and make our own version? Sure why not. Seems a little ambitious and perhaps unnecessarily spiteful, but sure why not?

What seems to me to be more useful and timely is to think about how this organizational principle might be brought to bear on our collective or divergent interests. To “fork” a national agenda—to make a vital and viable alternative to the original script—we might think about parallel groups working toward entirely different aims.

At this point in history, when the means of production—and I’m including mass communication and mediation here—are beyond the kenning of government and pundit, it seems to me to be a great time to think about how we might “think different” differently—to hijack Steve Job’s sloganeering (and to clean up his grammar).

Understanding that it takes a significant investment of creative/innovative people, ideas, and expertise, as well as as vital institutional support— to generate a discourse—gives me hope. To use a words I don’t often use.

Organized around an set of ideals—not to mention deep social and material concerns—that governments want to will away with an apology, I think this group has a great opportunity to make change. Change that for me gets to the heart of the disciplines we work with. We have some of the elements, a basic structure, a shared interest in developing a discourse and sharing imagery, finding ways of working together that are not entirely circumscribed by the existing code / networks.

With this in mind, I’m hoping we will start small and begin today to float some trial balloons. Or at least replace the photobombs with something more interesting. I’ll say more about what these might look like in the a few minutes, before I do I want to turn back to my title.

The key issue with forking for me has less to do with the reproducibility of code or our apparent ability to copy ad infinitum but to look at how the shifting means of cultural production / communication raise irreconcilable differences within user groups and the linked question of the material means to break, decouple, disconnect from the dominant. In the act of disconnecting, reconnecting is assumed. The members of an exit group must return to core values, concerns outcomes. There is also a knowledge that the new is potentially better—more just or just more interesting.

Hic Rhodus. Hic Salta.

As some of you may recognize this is a somewhat famous Latin phrase used by Hegel and Marx to refer to the revolutionary moment, the end of history, also the end of progress. I’m borrowing the phrase from a beautiful postscript to Roger Farr’s newest book of poems, Means. Hic rhodus. Hic salta is the title of one of Farr’s poetic sequences in the text and the focus of his postscript.

Farr tells us that the phrase is from a punch-line to a Latin fable able an athlete who boast about being a good jumper and winning a competition (presumably in Rhodes). The athelete’s boast is taken up by a bystander who says something along the lines of if you’re so good show us: “here the rod, now jump.” Alternative, there is a geographic aspect to the taunt: “Here is Rhodes, now jump.”

Hic rhodus. Hic Salta. As Farr points, out this phrase is also at the heart of Marx’s thinking about the revolutionary “end of history.” It is idea Marx borrows from Hegel to describe “that point in history where the proletariat is compelled to leap” (83).

What is remarkable for Farr, and many others, is that this moment has not been seized: “The problem, however, is that the logic of necessity ticking away inside this utterance—a logic captured syntactically in form of the conditional sentence “(‘If the conditions are correct, then the people will revolt’)—is either inherently flawed, or has been hijacked by some other spook, perhaps that other, better known maxim, cogita ante salis” (look before you leap) (83).

Farr’s essay goes on to discuss a systematic evacuation of political agency, which he connects with that moment forewarned in the work of Debord or Camatte, when “capital reaches a stage where it emancipates itself from human agency… a ‘mechanistic utopia’ where human beings become simple accessories of an automated system’” (84). Dark days indeed. Farr writes that “communication, like the economy it animates, also becomes something alien and autonomous, an abstract force—a ghost, a virus, a code—that harnesses ‘users’ to execute its commands” (86).

We are back at Chun’s notion of sourcery mentioned above, the all powerful code only needs us to click on the options, to like this one or that one.

However, what is remarkable about Farr’s essay is the way it forks a popular script—about the futility of resistance—by proposing a radical poetic turn. He argues for “a documentarian poetics that acknowledges its deep entanglement with exchange by replicating that particular transaction which every capitalist seeks to avoid: the return of used, damaged, or stolen, goods (words) for full refund.” He calls this a “dis-utopian un-writing—that avoids the old traps of ‘moral commitment, beautiful soul, ideological militancy, etc.,” and favours instead a “constructive punk realism” (87).

As a poet, Farr is talking about poetry, but for our purposes I’d like to open it up a bit include all manner of creative act—visual, performative, conceptual, musical. And I’d like to end the essay portion of my program with his contention that

our task should not be “political,” anti-political. Poets are not legislators. Writing does no have to concern itself with distribution of epiphanies and sensibilities, nor with the re-programming of an imagined citizenry in time for the next Federal election. It does not need to solve the problems that capital needs solved …. doesn’t have to help anyone ‘come to terms’ with this world.”

In the end, poetry’s role and I am including all manner of creative act here is “affective: to joyfully render the present even more intolerable than it already is.” Farr goes on to say this type of creative practice should gesture “toward new forms of affinity, agency, and association” (86)

At this point, in the spirit of joyfully rendering the present even more intolerable I’d like to open to a discussion about how we and I am using the term lightly might works with and across platforms. I’m hoping that we might use the basic Reworks site (1.0) as a spring board into a variety of other things.

But that’s where I/we need you.