Potel against Copyright and for Culture

From “Against Obscurantism,” Sight & Sound (2 Nov. 2010): “Argentinian philosophy professor Horacio Potel on the fight against restrictive copyright laws that are criminalising teaching and research.”

Do you see your case as part of a wider-reaching debate on the dissemination of and access to culture?

The Internet gives us the means to free ourselves from the clutches of the self-proclaimed cultural intercessors and delegates and to chose our own cultural heritage. This makes the old cultural industry nervous, as does the fact that the dissemination of information is taking place so incredibly more efficiently and inexpensively that ever before, makin the dream of free culture potentially available to everyone.

Nothing is being done to bring 20th century libraries up to scratch. They don’t have enough of anything, their stocks are outdated, and at the same time, the libraries of the future are being stifled in their infancy by putting injunctions on librarians. And the ultimate insult is that this is being facilitated by laws with such pompous-sounding names as “the law for the advancement of the book and the culture of reading” which, by defending the monopoly on the right to reproduction, is ultimately rubber-stamping the disappearance of texts and the culture of reading. One should not forget that my trial was intended to close three public libraries. That was the intention of the Argentinian Book Chamber and the cultural attache of the French Embassy. Luckily they failed.

As much as we should avoid the trap of thinking that “the book” belongs to the representatives of the publishing industry, we should also guard against the false belief that copyright defends the rights of the copyright holder. The opposite is the case. Copyright favours the control of our cultural heritage by an ever smaller number of private owners. The copyright is the medium that book-printing corporations use to appropriate the works of writers for purely commercial ends, so that all other companies, and the authors themselves, are robbed of the right to reproduce even their own work. Copyright confers a monopoly on the utilisation of content, and like every monopoly, it prevents competition which could at least bring down the exorbitant price of books. This is particularly pertinent in a country like ours where the majority of philosophy books are printed by foreign companies who compel us to pay through the nose for their products.

Culture, knowledge and tradition are not the work of “authors.” It is astonishing that the same gentlemen who carried the enlightened idea of the free and sovereign individual to the grave so as to sell us the consumerism of the subordinated subject instead, are now appealing to the metaphysics of subjectivity with an eye on maximising profits. And it is astounding that they are choosing to do so in a case that involves Heidegger and Derrida who both opposed the notion of creative subjectivity as the origin of the “work” or the “book.” There are no privileged atoms which are kissed by the muse and spread light among the passive masses. There are no atoms and the constitution of the “author” grows, like everything else, out of the metamorphosis of things that came before.

Heidegger and Derrida showed that before or in the process of the formation of a subject that calls itself “I,” an entire world was already in place, that we are formed before we are, by heritage and tradition, through the passing down and continuation of messages. Moreover, for Derrida everything begins with a summons: with a “come.” His “come” is the signal which calls for sending, the first email which calls for the correspondence in which we are already involved, correspondence with an other which is always there. To put an end to this correspondence is synonymous with death, and this is precisely what the militant copyright fundamentalists want to impose on the Internet in order to domesticate it and use it as a tool for selling their own bric-a-brac. But as Derrida said: “I inherit something which I must pass on: this might sound shocking, but there is no proprietary right to inheritance.” It is this inheritance that belongs to no one and influences all of us; it is this common heritage on which the new is built which is the focus of the attacks on free culture.

Potel quotes Derrida’s “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy” (wr. 1980), trans. John P. Leavey, in Derrida and Negative Theology, ed. Harold G. Coward and Toby Foshay (Albany, NY: SUNY P, 1992) 25-72, orig. publ. in Semeia 23 (1982): 63-98. The essay also appears in Peter David Fenves, Raising the Tone of Philosophy: Late Essays by Immanuel Kant, Transformative Critique by Jacques Derrida (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993) 51-72.


μοχλός (lever) and μηχανή (machine)

Models for understanding the role of writing or writing studies in denaturalising and reworking the university, i.e. writing—Derrida calls it “philosophy”—as potentially a lever on the university (which in itself is a lever on nature—or rather, on culture or second nature; any lever being a machine that is designed to deceive, to cheat nature or to become nature), the question being the degree to which or which part of the old university might serve as the fulcrum on which the lever rests to vault us into the new one  . . .

1. The lever (μοχλός, mochlos)

Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth” (δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω [from Pappus of Alexandria, Synagoge 7])

Vilém Flusser on the lever: “The Lever Strikes Back” (The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design [Reaktion Books, 1999] 51-54) and “About the Word Design” (Shape of Things 19). The lever, like all technologies, cheats the laws of nature by exploiting them, thereby “to replace what is natural with what is artificial”:

Flusser Mochlos

c.1300, from O.Fr. levier “a lifter, a lever,” agent noun from lever “to raise,” from L. levare “to raise,” from levis “light” in weight, from PIE base *le(n)gwh- “light, easy, agile, nimble.”

Jacques Derrida on the lever (“Mochlos; or, the Conflict of the Faculties” [1980; 1984], Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2 [Stanford UP, 2004] 83-112 and Richard Rand [ed.], Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties [U NE P, 1992] 1-34):

To found (or find) something new in “history, morality or politics” involves a compromise with the old, the old thus serving as “a support [hypomochlion] for a leap” toward the new (hypomochlion: the point of support or fulcrum of a lever, centre of rotation of a joint, or point of rest of a process). The difficulty lies “in determining the best lever,” i.e. mochlos, “something, in short, to lean on for forcing and displacing” (or to throw into the eye of a Cyclops, perhaps). As a result, “the most serious discords and decisions have to do less often with ends . . . than with levers.” See Derrida 2004, 110-11:

Derrida Mochlos 110

Derrida Mochlos 111


2. The machine (μηχανή, mechane)

Henry Ward Beecher: “A tool is but the extension of a man’s hand, and a machine is but a complex tool. He that invents a machine augments the power of man and the well-being of mankind” (Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit).

Vilém Flusser on the machine: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs” (Leonardo 19.4 [1 Oct. 1986]: 329-32), and About the Word Design” (17). A machine is designed to deceive.

Flusser Mechos

1549, “structure of any kind,” from M.Fr. machine “device, contrivance,” from L. machina “machine, engine, fabric, frame, device, trick,” from Gk. makhana, Doric variant of mekhane “device, means,” related to mekhos “means, expedient, contrivance,” from PIE *maghana- “that which enables,” from base *magh- “to be able, have power.” Main modern sense of “device made of moving parts for applying mechanical power” (1673) probably grew out of 17c. senses of “apparatus, appliance” (1650) and “military siege-tower” (1656). Machinery (1687) was originally theatrical, “devices for creating stage effects;” meaning “machines collectively” is attested from 1731.

The University in Ruins (Not)

The problem

Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Harvard UP, 1996), the blurb:

It is no longer clear what role the University plays in society. The structure of the contemporary University is changing rapidly, and we have yet to understand what precisely these changes will mean. Is a new age dawning for the University, the renaissance of higher education under way? Or is the University in the twilight of its social function, the demise of higher education fast approaching?

We can answer such questions only if we look carefully at the different roles the University has played historically and then imagine how it might be possible to live, and to think, amid the ruins of the University. Tracing the roots of the modern American University in German philosophy and in the work of British thinkers such as Newman and Arnold, Bill Readings argues that historically the integrity of the modern University has been linked to the nation-state, which it has served by promoting and protecting the idea of a national culture. But now the nation-state is in decline, and national culture no longer needs to be either promoted or protected. Increasingly, universities are turning into transnational corporations, and the idea of culture is being replaced by the discourse of “excellence.” On the surface, this does not seem particularly pernicious.

The author cautions, however, that we should not embrace this techno-bureaucratic appeal too quickly. The new University of Excellence is a corporation driven by market forces, and, as such, is more interested in profit margins than in thought. Readings urges us to imagine how to think, without concession to corporate excellence or recourse to romantic nostalgia within an institution in ruins. The result is a passionate appeal for a new community of thinkers.

This sounds familiar.

The solution

Jeffrey J. Williams outlines the history of the idea of the university and offers a solution to this ruinous situation: teaching the idea, history, literature and sociology of the university in the university, specifically, in English departments that, as writing zones, are supposed to know well what is ostensibly the language of the university: writing (“Teach the University,” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 8.1 [2007]: 25-42).

Williams Intro

Jacques Derrida offers a radical—and perhaps utopian—response, arguing for “The University without Condition,” in which the “new humanities” will play a vital role, because they are concerned with humanity, human rights and crimes against humanity, the same concerns that “organise” mondialisation (globalisation), “which wishes to be a humanisation” (Without Alibi, trans. Peggy Kamuf [Stanford UP, 2002]):

University Without Condition 202


University Without Condition 203


What, then, is the role of the humanities in the university without condition? It is to exercise the right to speak without condition—“to say everything” and “to say it publicly,” as literature does (cf. Jacques Rancière, who might say that whereas the “police” operates via consensus, “politics” operates via dissensus; the university without condition would be “political”—or “redistributed” according to what he calls the “democratic heresy”):

University Without Condition 205(205)

(So I read Williams as more pragmatic than Derrida—or perhaps he’s just less Continental: for Derrida, literature, the writing of différance, will take over from philosophy as the language of university; for Williams, it seems, it’s writing per se.)

This solution is complicated if we view the historical situation in which we find ourselves as not amenable to humanistic, literary or writerly enquiry, as Vilèm Flusser suggests it is in “The Codified World” (Writings [U MN P, 2002] 35-41). His epochal reading of codes is as follows:

  1. premodern/prehistorical: image—the scene (imagination: magic, myths)
  2. modern/historical: writing—the concept (conception: explanations, theories, ideologies)
  3. postmodern/posthistorical: techno-image—the program (techno-imagination: models, games)

For Flusser, we face a “crisis of values” at the transition to techno-images because the old written “programs,” politics, philosophy and science, not to mention art and history, have been disempowered (41).


I would say: the university is not in ruins—a certain idea of the university might well be: of the university as “literary” research institution, certainly, or, more broadly, of the human university. It is, in fact, in rude good health, not so much in the Crystal Palace of the Business School, the “excellent” (transparent/transcendentally capitalised) university, with its reduction of governance to calculability, but in the face-to-face encounter in the place of learning, wherever it should be.

Said “excellent” university wants to count its students and research outputs, but it does not account for itself (it is non-reflexive); teachers in the university ought to account for themselves—as should students (they should be reflexive). This teachers can do, not by grading students and counting research outputs, but by taking account of the “distribution of the sensible” (a description of what counts) that prevails in the place of learning: affect from below (democratic affect); deformance, intentional and otherwise; decryption; etc. . . . (of which more later).

And because the “excellent” university is also an “exploded” university, it is distributed well beyond the walls of the Crystal Palace through the relatively autonomous—and thus relatively incalculable—nodes of remote learning and other @-universities; and encloses within its walls other similar nodes, such as centres, writing-studies classrooms (!), and (post-)seminars.