Pirate Philosophy: For a Digital Posthumanities
by Gary Hall
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2016
264 pp. Trade, $42 USD
Reviewed by Rob Harle
This is a very important and challenging book. It is one of the best discussions I have read on the current transition from the "old world" to the new, or perhaps better stated, from human to posthuman. When I say old world I mean precisely the cultural, social and technological world that existed prior to approximately the 1950s.
Throughout Pirate Philosophy Hall creates an almost palpable feeling of having one foot in a secure, knowable, and manageable world (however illusory that may have been) and the other foot in an unknown (perhaps unknowable), flowing, uncertain future where the individual is no longer an idiosyncratic creature (warts and all) but a miniscule trace of data in a global, multi-national conglomerate. Society of mind; crowd sourcing; swarm intelligence; crowd funding; death of the open-web; and herd instinct are some terms that agitate my mind.
The main thrust of this book (itself an outmoded old world anachronism) is critical theory; academic research, and publishing; ownership of information in the sense of copyright and intellectual property; and the disintegration or abolition of the individual (as an author or creator). Hall is only too well aware of the distinction of an 'old world book' and all that goes with it, and the new world WW2, interactive multi-author, Open Source, Open Access phenomena. To his credit his scholarly approach is extremely honest and well balanced, which will give this book the recognition it deserves.
The book is very well researched and presents arguments both for and against this unprecedented transition in human affairs. I coined the term technoMetamorphosis many years ago to describe this transition. The printing press and the industrial revolution brought about massive changes to the life of humans; these changes seem to pale into insignificance in overall impact to the imminent posthuman, post- postmodern, post digital world that we are creating and is in turn creating us.
Pirate Philosophy runs to 264 pages offers a Preface, Extensive Notes, a good Index and six Chapters as follows:
1 – The Commons and Community: How We Remain Modern
2 – The Humanities There are No Digital Humanities
3 – The Human
4 - The Posthuman: What Are the Digital Posthumanities?
5 – Copyright and Piracy: Pirate Radical Philosophy
6 - The future of The Book: The Unbound Book
I must mention the choice of title seems slightly silly – no, it has nothing to do with Jack Sparrow or The Black Pearl. It's a catchy title but does not adequately describe what this book is really about. Also I started to become bored and a little irritated in chapter two with the extensive discussion concerning Derrida, Manovich, and Stiegler, I mean they are "so last century". However, Hall discusses their theories clearly, fairly, and in an unbiased way. He must be a saint! Then he comes into his own, so to speak, in chapter four, and I realised why the previous discussion was necessary. In this chapter he details his activities regarding a true "new world" approach. With a number of associates he has created two publishing ventures, the first Open Humanities Press (OHP) (established 2006); this was setup to counter the view that, "open access journals, and book presses in particular, to be less trustworthy and desirable places to publish" (p. 85). The second venture was Living Books About Life (launched in 2011). As he says, "It is a series of open access books about life ... that provide multiple points of connection, interrogation, and contestation between the humanities and the sciences" (pp. 87-88). These projects initiated by Hall are very exciting. I wish I had more space to discuss them further. For me they are indicative of a reasonable approach to the road ahead––that is, Hall et al have come up with a practical approach to encapsulate the theories, which in many cases, are self contradictory and hypocritical.
One example will suffice. Hall discusses the theories and exhortations of Braidotti in her hard copy traditional book, The Posthuman. He tells us, "Braidotti is clearly opening the door for a radical mutation of many concepts and practices on which theory and the humanities are currently based" (p. 95). Like Hall I agree with many of her radical proposals, but as Hall, somewhat disappointedly (I feel), points out, Braidotti does not "practice what she preaches." Her book is as "old world" as Brave New World was, has all the same copyright restrictions, hails her as the "single, individual brilliant author", cannot be modified, and so on. The book is old world enough for her to,
"...sign her name on a contract giving her the legal right to assert her identity as the "Author of the Work" ... in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988," and to claim this original, fixed, and final version of the text as her isolable intellectual property - not least via an all-rights-reserved copyright notice." (p. 97)
I find this so called scholarship either extremely naive or existentially inauthentic and plainly disgusting.
This one example points to the inherent difficulties in both postmodern critical theory and developing a truly new, revolutionary humanities. Hall cites the case of Nigel Vincent, British Academy vice president who clearly and in my opinion correctly states, academic books and monographs, "are certainly too important to be "sacrificed on the alter of open access, further stating that "adoption of the untrammelled CC_BY licence, ... is not appropriate [for humanities] for monographs and book chapters" at all" (p. 93).
Hall has opened a can of worms with this brilliant book. It is contentious, challenging, and will help immensely develop an equitable "new world" publishing paradigm that honours and protects individual effort and creations but also allows sharing and the non multi-national control of academic research and resultant knowledge. I suggest aspects of the old world and the new are needed to work side by side. If this can be implemented, we will have the best of both worlds.
This book is essential reading for all academics and further advances and elaborates on Peter Suber's excellent book Open Access that I reviewed for Leonardo in August 2012: http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/aug2012/suber-harle.php.