Cultural Studies and Critical Information Studies

by Henry Farrell on April 13, 2006

Siva Vaidhyanathan has written a very interesting “piece”: on “Critical Information Studies” – the conversations that have sprung up around intellectual property, new technologies etc – as a form of cultural studies. Among many other interesting things, Siva’s piece points to two aspects of Critical Information Studies that seem (to me; Siva is rather more generous) to be very useful correctives to tendencies within cultural studies as it exists today. One is an emphasis not on bodging together different and incompatible forms of theory, but instead on trying to make them interoperable, through using a vocabulary that doesn’t necessarily span them, but that makes the insights, say, of a computer science professor like Ed Felten intelligible to a legal scholar like Larry Lessig. Second, is a clear connection between theory and praxis – critical information studies is not only devoted to sorting out theory, but pragmatically applying it to change politics through initiatives and organizations like the “Creative Commons”: and “Access To Knowledge”: I’d be interested to read what people who are more sympathetic than I am to modern cultural studies (as opposed, to the original work done by Hall, Hoggart etc) think.



Wax Banks 04.14.06 at 7:41 am

[Hello Henry – longtime reader, ~3rd-time commenter. This is a windy and bitchy response but believe me, I tried to come up with nicer things to say about the article and its non-disciplinary disciplinarity and just couldn’t.]

Unfortunately the article reads as more or less standard ‘Look, I’m a department all my own’ boilerplate, blended with a strain of ‘Check out how meaningful we scholars can be’ and topped off with a sprinkling of ‘Open source! Code is law! Diebold!’ voodoo, i.e. bog-standard digital-liberty concerns dressed in tweed (but not too much tweed). I want to avoid mischaracterizing the author’s work in general, but the emphasis on ‘semiotic democracy’ rather overloads that term in a way that’s dully common in ‘CIS’ discourse; the mention en passant of ‘culture jamming’ (hiply aestheticized dissent of which Tom Frank among others is scathingly critical) gives another hint that this characterization of ‘CIS’ is old news in a new outfit.

Henry, you mention one of the upshots of this vaguely-defined type of scholarship:

One is an emphasis not on bodging together different and incompatible forms of theory, but instead on trying to make them interoperable, through using a vocabulary that doesn’t necessarily span them, but that makes the insights, say, of a computer science professor like Ed Felten intelligible to a legal scholar like Larry Lessig.

I believe the word you’re working toward might be nothing more than ‘metaphor’, or perhaps the lightly Derridean ‘good writing as such’. (I apologise if all this comes off as condescending; the urge to condescend to the author of the article is strong, as it’s an article in which not much happens, at length. My sneer is directed at the article, not your post.) Cut out the ‘CIS’ coinage and you have a bibliography of accessible writing on readerly text-interpretation, the ecology of cultural artifacts and discourses, and copyright – which is well and good, if unexciting. But Frank (who gets a backhand early in the paper) would surely point out that while the language of this paper might be grand, its ambit is small, and the ‘information economy’ (ecology?) equivalent of the traditional call for politically-engaged materialst cultural criticism raises now-standard concerns about (if you’ll permit me a bit more glibness) ‘defining democracy down’. (For a tiresome example read Cory Doctorow’s screeds on IP law and the True! Nature! of Digital Democracy!) It’s not to say these concerns aren’t important, just that nothing suggests we need a new coinage to label them, and the hand-wavey rhetoric seems questionable.

Plus, anyone who complains about academic jargon in one clause and drops ‘code-switching’ in the next should come in for criticism.

Good (contemporary and elsewise) cultural studies writing is above all documentary writing, fitting local analysis in all its complexity into a larger frame of reference but first and foremost being damned serious about capturing the culture it studies; writing about Internet newsgroups and ‘culture jammers’ and Barbie doll modification art makes it easy to feel like you’re doing the legwork, but by and large these reports from the Cutting Edge of the info revolution lack even pretensions to journalistic authenticity. ‘We need to let in more voices’ and ‘We need to think about other countries and indigenous cultures’ are polite shorthand for ‘The work’s getting harder, we don’t know enough,’ and while it’s quite pleasant to daydream about politically-active academics altering the very nature of Western living by freeing Mickey Mouse from copyright, I suggest that we have them package that dream up with the pony I just wished for, to save on shipping.


Ned Ulbricht 04.14.06 at 9:09 am

Henry said, “I’d be interested to read what people who are more sympathetic than I am to modern cultural studies [] think.”

Wax Banks responded with, “My sneer is directed at the article […]”

I’m just curious whether Wax Banks is more sympathetic than Henry to modern cultural studies?


Wax Banks 04.14.06 at 12:00 pm

At the beginning of the comment I thought I was!

Perhaps if I’d slept better…


Siva Vaidhyanathan 04.14.06 at 2:36 pm


You wrote:

“‘We need to let in more voices’ and ‘We need to think about other countries and indigenous cultures’ are polite shorthand for ‘The work’s getting harder, we don’t know enough,’”

Right on. I can’t argue with that (or much that you wrote about my article).

Do you object to the nature of the scholarly work I have summarized or to my attempt to place it under a multidisciplinary and public-minded framework?


Henry 04.14.06 at 4:15 pm

Hi wax banks

I’ll let Siva defend his own paper – he knows it far better than me – but let me speak to why I personally liked the paper quite a lot. It seems to me that the paper does a very nice job of linking theory to praxis – that is, of showing how a certain academic strain of thought has gotten caught up in an effort to change the world. Now, I’ll grant you, change the world in modest ways – but less modest than you suggest. Arguments over access to information go way beyond debates over filesharing etc – my colleague and friend, Susan Sell is currently writing a book about intellectual property in genetic information and pharmaceuticals, and how this structures global economic relations, specifically building on the agenda that Siva identifies. Anyway, the point remains that there is a practical political agenda linked to the intellectual elements.

And this, in my frankly idiosyncratic opinion, is something that cultural studies is sorely missing at the moment. It wasn’t always this way. If you go back to the original work of Hall and Hoggart etc, you’ll find that an awful lot of it was aimed at solving a set of quite pragmatic questions – how properly to reshape higher education in a context (the late sixties UK) where it was for the first time being opened up to a substantial chunk of the general public through the increase in investment in universities and polys, the Open University etc. This, for me, gives their work a meatiness that I don’t find, say, in Homi Bhabha’s articles. And there’s some of that in the people that Siva identifies. I’ll grant that this isn’t the only possible way that cult stud could develop over time – Tim Burke has a quite different set of priorities for example – but if you want to use it to build theories with practical application, then, as Siva says, you can learn quite a lot from looking at what the folks in critical information studies are doing.

We’ll be running a seminar in a few weeks that addresses some of these issues in more detail – more then.


Wax Banks 04.14.06 at 5:32 pm

Hi Siva and Henry –

In future I’ll try to comment on these things after sleeping a full night. I was far more crotchety this morning than I’d meant to be.

[Henry, your mention of Susan Sell’s work is interesting!]

Henry: of course you’re right about the early Cult Studies fellows; Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall were linchpin readings for me as both undergrad and grad student, and I felt the usual student’s envy reading about what I took to be a grand scholarly struggle against the Man (or whatever). And ditto your Bhaba aside.

There’s nothing wrong with the article as an introduction to a body of literature loosely connected; as far as critical studies of IP Stuff goes, it’s a handy resource. Part of what provokes me is the tone of the thing, a familiar kind of ‘relevance/importance inflation’ breathiness that’s common to both anti-DRM/copyleft/’free culture’ crusaders and cultural studies academics, and triply so whenever a new disciplinary division is proposed. (It wasn’t for nothing I mentioned Cory Doctorow, who’s won an utterly inexplicable Fulbright fellowship recently.)

If chests are to be thumped, if the word ‘manifesto’ is to be disinterred, let’s have something weightier than a new issue of AdBusters as an occasion. The ‘political engagement’ on the part of many of the scholars cited is limited to using words like ‘crisis’ in MLA paper titles, and the AdBusters/culture jamming types sound like stoned grad students tossing out half-digested eutopianisms between nights painting over billboards. (My, this is a lovely glass house I’ve got.) I’m dubious about the possibility of enlightening people into not protecting their business interests; unfortunately I’m also dubious about (e.g.) Doctorow’s visions of companies making billions by giving all their IP away.

If all we’re saying is ‘politically aware cultural criticism about computers is great’ then sure, I’m behind you 150%. (Hey, I blog! I’m with it!) And if we’re insisting today that academics learn how to speak to people other than one another, so as to actually matter in policy debates, then yaaay!! (And also: could you have a word with the novelists? And also: good luck.) But I think the CIS banner waves over (a) a smaller swathe of the intellectual cosmos than it may seem and than may be pleasurable to think, and (b) a set of political stances that we might question, which aren’t all equivalent, which don’t really constitute a major field of humanistic study. Then again, 40 winks and I might be painting over billboards with you, Snell, and Siva himself.

[I suppose one question is: what kind of idiot/lunatic wants to build theories without practical application? (Other than those on the tenure-track of course.)]

The best commentary I’ve read on cultural studies (as I experienced it in grad school anyhow) as a field is still Tom Frank’s – it’s pungent, to the point, maddeningly limited and incomplete in its assessment, and (quite frankly) does an injustice to the best cult stud writing. And I would scrub a coat of Tom Frank over Siva’s paper as helpful modificaiton/moderation of the basic assumptions of the CIS work listed. Rinse. Repeat. &c. &c. &c.


Henry 04.14.06 at 5:54 pm

wax banks – fair enough. But one aside – Cory Doctorow is incredibly smart in ways that don’t necessarily come through on a blog. The one time I met him for a protracted conversation was at a breakfast with him and Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden when I still lived in Toronto. I honestly didn’t feel qualified or able to keep up with the conversation – an effervescence of smart ideas and different ways of looking at things that I was still digesting half a year later. I can understand why he pisses a lot of people off – but I’m quite convinced that there is a there there (and that he fully deserves the Fulbright).


Henry 04.14.06 at 5:55 pm

Oh, and I agree on the Franks article (which I think is available for free these days on Prickly Paradigm) – it’s unfair in many ways, but bloody good all the same.


Siva Vaidhyanathan 04.15.06 at 5:32 am


All good criticisms.

But I think you might not appreciate some of the backstory here. My article is slightly subversive in regards to Cultural Studies (the journal and the field).

I am declaring the exclusive focus on cultural interpretation and revision to be inadequate and over. Only a fool would focus on cultural practice without paying attention to matters of regulation, technology, ownership and power.

In other words, the boring battle between Cultural Studies and Political Economy is over. My jab at Frank was based on my conclusion that much of what he justly criticizes in his essay on Cultural Studies is stale. The really cool stuff going on among Cultural Studies does not sounds like mid-1990s American Cultural Studies that we all found to be somewhat silly.

Your invocation of Frank is interesting. I actually agree with most of what Gitlin and Frank have written about Cultural Studies. They are just not paying attention anymore. And my article is not something that could have made it into a Cultural Studies journal a decade ago. It would have been unwelcome. Things have changed.

My article was not about “culture jamming.” Culture jamming is merely an element of what is going on. It’s more about lobbying and lawsuits.

I think you will notice that among the scholars I cite approvingly are people like Felten, Boyle, Lessig, Doctorow (who, btw, is a brilliant advocate and activist who has done amazing work on WIPO for EFF), and Hal Abelson.

These folks build stuff and battle for their principles in the public sphere and the courts. That’s stuff Frank would applaud.

And, BTW, Tom and I have discussed much of this stuff. He is as concerned with the abuse of power by media industries as anyone. That — fundamentally — is what we are talking about here.

I think your problem is with an old version of cultural studies rather than with the breadth of what I am describing in the article.

But your comments are welcome and interesting. Thanks again for taking it so seriously and sparking this conversation.


Wax Banks 04.15.06 at 7:00 am

Siva –

You’re right about Hal Abelson, who is one of the heroes of MIT these days, an iconoclast and committed student advocate. He gives an annual talk on ‘tuition free MIT’ that’s always a bit of an event, and his involvement with Open CourseWare is impressive. But those things have always seemed like hobbies for him – perhaps that’s the best thing about him, that his passion for educational reform isn’t neatly quantized and kept away from his computer science research. The passion is all the same all across.

Thanks for taking my snark seriously in any case; I was worried that my reflexive distaste was aimed primarily at something not actually in the article, and it seems from your characterization of the field that that’s the case. If the future of a certain academic area looks like your bibliographic vision, I’m not certain I want to live there, but then I was certain I didn’t want to live in the vision I was reacting to, so perhaps that’s a step up.

I have a couple of open questions, but they’re not for blog comments – as they’re gonna take a long time to formulate, and follow on your latest comment, which needs to sink in.

Henry – as for Cory Doctorow, is there anything he’s written to suggest this intellectual heaviness? After all, brightness isn’t the criterion for such an award, the prospect of serious work is (I assume), and I’ve never seen (nonfiction) writing from him that merited such attention. On the Internet stridency will get you a long way, but I’m guessing that’s not what he’s going to USC for.

Or is it for his fiction? In which case: what should I read? No excerpt has ever sounded good, no short story has ever been moving, so where do I go? I admit there’s a note of light personal animus here, but that’s a response to the personal tone of his blog-writing, I suspect.


Ned Ulbricht 04.15.06 at 9:44 am

I suppose one question is: what kind of idiot/lunatic wants to build theories without practical application?

Number theorists. Well, mathematicians in general. But number theorists are the absolute worst.

Well, at least they used to be. Then the cryptographers went and stole all their best stuff. I think the cryptographers did it out of pure spite: The number theorists were just too stuck up on themselves. I mean they boasted about not having any practical applications.


Lewis Hyde 04.17.06 at 10:16 am

To come back to Siva’s essay itself for a moment, most useful for me were his remarks about democracy and positive liberty.

To restate his point in my own terms, on the one hand we can have “information” framed in terms of property where ownership is, in Blackstone’s old definition, “That sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.”

On the other hand we can have “information” framed in terms of the expressive needs and rights of citizens in a democracy. If democracy is the valued end, then (in Siva’s words), “Positive liberties… demand that the state foster spaces, technologies, norms, and processes that maximize certain kinds of speech.”

The example he begins with, of Diebold Election Systems versus students at Swarthmore college, fleshes this out nicely. On the property side we have the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which frames information about voting machines entirely in terms of the right to exclude. On the speech side we have students who, by posting Diebold’s internal memos, were engaged in the kind of expression that is constitutive of democratic citizenship.

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