‘for the love of…’

Last month the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University hosted Common love. As the catalogue aptly put it, the show exhibited a rather ‘unconventional exploration of love’ ‘Love?’ Yes. Love. L.O.V.E. And there could not have been a timelier moment. Of late love has been one of the most surprising, interesting and uplifting tropes in debates about contemporary culture and aesthetics. Love has been rigorously defined by liberal lawyers and cautiously dusted off by Marxist thinkers, critically used by copy-leftists and uncritically celebrated by mainstream hipsters, seriously debated by social media gurus and, indeed, earnestly spoken off during art exhibitions. Why? Why is the notion of love once more informing the way we perceive ourselves and make sense of our everyday lives? Why is love once more haunting the cultural imaginary? Oh boy – Abandon all cynicism, ye who enter here.

One of the artists featured in Common Love was Ronnie Bass (1976), who showcased a couple of rather captivating video-works. Bass’ protagonists inhabit the most ordinary of domestic spaces (attics, sheds, kitchens, living rooms) where they come together to devote their free time to pet projects and shared interest. In Our Land (2006) the manager of a computer store, meets up with two of his favorite employees to carve a sculpture out of a chunk of wood, their mutual hobby; in The Sky Needs You Too (2008) a couple of friends are clumsily trying to pour the contents of a bag of flour (?) into a clunky mixer and in 2012 (2009) two mates seem to conduct an elaborate experiment with a flower pot, a pile of dirt and a chemical set. Of course such pastimes are easily ridiculed – and considering the abundance of geeky clothes and cheesy music they indeed are – but in the end any ironic stance towards the activities of the characters is held in check by the overall sincerity of the works (similar to McDowell’s description of the quirky sensibility). The geeky scenes of Do It Yourself (DIY) culture are, for instance, coupled to references of sublime experiences, romantic desires and utopian longings. The cheesy music is paired to at times toe cringing, but always heartfelt and honest songs about being friends, reaching out and helping out.

Bass’ work nicely encapsulates and tentatively explores the love for making and sharing nowadays embodied by the networked amateur (though has always been a human trait). The notion of the networked amateur (i.e. amare), to be sure, refers not to someone who is a non-salaried professional because  s/he is not good enough at what s/he does to get paid for this or that activity, but to someone, anyone, who is not a salaried professional because  s/he loves – that is: finds joy, pleasure or an interest in – what s/he is doing, making and sharing in and through the network of networks that is the internet. For that matter, the networked amateur is the embodiment of love. Let me briefly explain this by means of three different, yet interrelated aspects of 21st century network culture. These aspects are craftswo/manship (i.e. techne), creativity (i.e. poesis) and generosity.

The notion of craftswo/manship alludes to the skilled use of all those technologies, tools and techniques necessary to create and share forms of digital culture. Nowadays these digital skills are so utterly banal it doesn’t seem worth the while to pause and reflect upon them. Yet we should. The sheer given that ordinary people – and not just hackers and whiz kids and professionals – have the craft (i.e. techne) needed to manipulate those technologies, tools and techniques is the sine qua non of network culture. Without it the use of information- and communication technologies would not have generated the profound social, economic and cultural shifts we have witnessed over the last decade or so. For the sake of periodisation, it should thus be noted that these shifts only became fully apparent with the advent of so-called web 2.0 services; the very moment the vast, unknown and savage terrain of 1990s cyberspace had been fully explored, carefully mapped and brought into culture. Ever since it has become increasingly clear that the media logic of postmodernism – television screen and spectacle, cyberspace and simulacrum – is slowly but surely being replaced by the media logic of metamodernism: network culture.

The shift from “television culture” to network culture has facilitated a surge of creativity (i.e. poesis) hitherto unimaginable. Whereas we used to spend most, if not all of our free time as idle consumers, we now lovingly dedicate a significant chunk of those free hours to acts of online creativity. Whether these acts require a talent of some sorts or amount to almost nothing and whether they are rather vulgar or strike you as beautiful, interesting or witty is not the point. The point is of course, in the words of social media theorist Clay Shirky, that:

‘On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something, and [even] someone making lolcats has bridged that gap (Cognitive Surplus, 2010, pp. 18-19).’

 So whatever your opinion about certain forms of online creativity – from trivial lolcats to clever remix videos, from stupid comments to elaborate Wikipedia entries and from Facebook likes to open source software – the crucial aspect is that someone dedicated his free time to make or do something he enjoyed (and others might as well enjoy) – that the pleasure is not yours, soit.

The most remarkable aspect of the shift from “television culture” to network culture is the generosity of all those craftswo/men freely sharing their creative work in and through the Internets. In doing so – and this brings us to the notion of the  ‘common’ – amateurs craft and create a common culture consisting of all the information and knowledge, images and affects, computer codes and data sets lovingly shared in and through the internets. This common culture is, in other words, not selected, produced and distributed by public institutions (i.e.governments) or private corporations (i.e. markets), but flows directly from the desires, joys and pleasures of common people. There are several takes on this.

Social media theorists have argued that the digital commons are continuously being harvested by gigantesque web 2.0 services such as Google, Amazon, Youtube and Facebook who  ride, as it were, on the creativity and generosity of their users – for better or for worse. Liberal scholars such as Yochai Benkler and Lawrence Lessig have argued that the digital commons must be recognized as a valuable social, economic and cultural sphere between the public and private spheres of modernity and must be legally protected accordingly. And neomarxist scholars such as Michel Bauwens and Hardt & Negri have argued that the common(s) must be seen as a radical alternative for the public and private spheres of modernity and points towards a future beyond modernity as we currently know it – an altermodernity constituted by love and constructed by the common.

 As the debate about the rise of the amateur craftswo/man, its creativity and generosity and its relation to the commons is one of the most fascinating of our age, we will from now on regularly discuss these topics on this blog. We are neither ardent advocates of the amateur nor do we harness some form of antipathy against its doings. We simply assume that the amateur is one of the heroes of our time – to use Lermontov’s ambiguous, ambivalent notion – whose portrait, if sketched with a steady hand, reveals all the vices and virtues of our generation.

image: courtesy Ronnie Bass, Our Land, 2006