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Supermovables: The Fate of Unreal Estate, or a Treatise on the Social Problem Regarding Illegal File-Sharing


Other Voices, 3.1 Recycling Culture
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The paper begins by refusing any claims on pragmatism, on contributing to the regime of regulation. Nor have we any stake in whether digital media files, our objects here, should be "free," per the definition shared by Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (New York: Penguin 2004), or Richard M. Stallman's Free Software, Free Society (Boston: GNU Press, 2002). Their definition takes its inspiration from Stewart Brand's dictum of the Information Age—one which has acquired a patina of techno-anarchism—that "information wants to be free." As Lessig writes:

We come from a tradition of "free culture"—not "free" as in "free beer" (to borrow a phrase from the founder of the free software movement [Stallman]), but "free" as in "free speech," "free markets," "free trade," "free enterprise," "free will," and "free elections." A free culture supports and protects creators and innovators. It does this directly by granting intellectual property rights. But it does so indirectly by limiting the reach of those rights, to guarantee that follow-on creators and innovators remain as free as possible from the control of the past. A free culture is not a culture without property, just as a free market is not a market in which everything is free.

The distinction drawn is between the value of a commodity and the regulation of an activity, between capitalism and culture. But the specter of the "free market" (already a curious expression, naming as it does the most regulated activity in modern history) will not suffer this division: it is a social activity indeed, but exclusively insofar as it involves commodities, value, and their relationships. The two meanings of "free" collapse into each other endlessly, and the distinction here functions not as an understanding, but as a mask that conceals the relationship of human activity to objective economic conditions.

The ambiguous word that concerns this essay is, rather, real. What follows may occasionally take the appearance of an argument, and a metaphysical one at that. It means, rather, to be little more than an aspect for looking at our object with a certain degree of historical particularity: one step toward an immanent critique of digital copyright that remains before us.

The question at hand concerns not whether a digital music file of the Christina Aguilera song "Beautiful" ought to be "free," but whether it is real and, if so, how real. Though we mean to start with a grossly material sense of the term, the "Real" of Lacan's symbolic order cannot be excluded from the eventual coordination of concepts, as will become clear. What we propose is that:

  1. the real, as an ambivalent social understanding of property, forms something closer to a continuum;
  2. that this continuum is indexed to a continuum of mobility;
  3. that the mobility of commodities is at the heart of modernity, from the rise of technological reproduction to the contemporary concerns over digital file sharing;
  4. and, finally, that a new level of mobility, inextricable from a new conception of "content" as commodity, seems to propose an epistemic crisis for the reality of commodities, but this crisis mainly serves as misdirection from a crisis of labor.

Along the way, we will pause over coins, stamping, the French Revolution, mass culture, Edgar Allen Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and cargo pants.

It is easy to suspect that one says "real estate"—but not, say, "real furniture"—because it is royal. The idea that the land—the ground against which all figures move—was the ground of the aristocracy is self-apparent; that this conceptual history might be preserved in the language would be unsurprising. To grow up in California, for example, is always to reside within a few miles of some road named El Camino Real.

Spurious etymologies are true delights—but the "real" in real estate is a legal term standing in complementary distinction to "personal." It turns not on the Indo-European root "reg-" (to move in a straight line and, thus, to rule) but "re-" (bestow, endow—the suffixed form goes to goods, wealth, property), and has three interlocking subdefinitions:

a. Of actions, causes, etc.: Relating to things, or spec. to real property (see c).
b. Connected in some way with things or real property.
c. Consisting of immovable property, as lands and houses; esp. real estate.

Definition (c) is familiar to Romance languages, as for example in where a French real estate agency is un immobilier; a building, un immeuble. This term is entirely exchangeable with "real estate"; in Nicot's 1606 Thresor de la langue française, we find reference to maisons et heritages, rentes et droicts réels, reputez immeubles. In this concept-space—the concept-space of modern property—real and immovable share a single point.

Un immeuble is real estate, but les meubles are furniture—that is to say, goods that can be moved to one's immeuble. They may require one to call a friend for help but can, finally, be delivered to one's building and carted up the stairs. We do not say "real furniture" for the veritable reason that it isn't real in the way that real estate is.

This distinction is unsettling only insofar as the more familiar meaning of "real" hovers nearby: a chaise longue does not, after all, lack for heft. This commingling of a legal principle and one of physics is already present in the definitions: the immobility of real estate precedes its realness, which is to say that even this legal definition requires the a priori materiality of something that is there—incontrovertibly there and not going elsewhere.

This commingling of definitions, this ambiguity (and it will not be the last), mediates the conception of "real" as a continuum; because it seems absurd to say that furniture is unreal, we are left to an understanding whereby, because it is less there, less physically rooted in its location, it is simply less real.

Less real still, less there, are digital media files. These are what we shall call "supermovables"; the French can call them supermeubles. They can be transported—"transmitted," we say, and the difference between porter and mettre tells us much—with negligible physical effort. Moreover, unlike a truck filled with Coke bottles or a mailing crate of compact discs, the files arrive without meaningful loss from impediment; in this regard supermovables resemble current through a superconductor. Via the isomorphological argument we have developed, among all goods, supermovables are the least real.

Among commodities, they are also the least royal. The English word "real" bears the trace of "royal" in only two cases: one is the archaic use of the former to mean the latter, of which the OED's most recent citation is 1602. The other is in reference to various units of currency which have taken that name, minted at various times by Portugal, by the Dutch, by Barbados and Brazil. The derivation of this term is clear: the coin's value was assured by the crown, and generally bore the image of the monarch. In this figure, and the historical era to which it is proper (in which value itself is set not by the free market, but by the throne), the royal and real are rather hard to separate.

Bourgeois modernity displaces the royal and the real in a single coup, though the wound to the latter becomes visible only slowly. Here of course we mean "real" in the sense of "genuine and authentic": the very authenticity which is lost in the proliferation of Benjamin's "plurality of copies," in the "Work of Art" essay (in which, in an aside, he notes that the origins of technological reproduction lie in "Bronzes, terra cottas, and coins"). Aura, in its departure, appears as an artifact of the crown no less than the halo, for Benjamin reads its withering as the withering of French royalty: an ineluctable result of the bourgeois revolution, and the rise of mass culture. Deroyalization and derealization require only one guillotine.

Most important for the present essay is Benjamin's relation of this loss of aura to loss of presence, of thereness:

...technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.

Before reproduction, the work of art remains rooted in place; as with real estate, it is real because it is immeuble. Epur si muove, albeit through fatal violence, for "To pry an object from its shell" is "to destroy its aura." Reproduced artwork—to make it explicit, the commodity form of art—is defined by its mobility and thus its lost realness.

Benjamin found these to be separate facts, the twin "social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura":

Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things "closer" spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.

But bringing these things closer—moving and, eventually, supermoving them—is exactly what overcomes their reality. That is to say, we differ with Benjamin's judgment only insofar as we hold these desires to be one and the same.


There is an opportunity to psychologize our argument, over which we will linger briefly, only for its picturesque character: that the anxiety around derealization in the bourgeois era, around virtuality and the loss of authentic experience, is a mask for guilt about our own displacement of the real. The real—now gone missing and for which the commodity endlessly substitutes—is our tell-tale heart: the heart of the murdered king beating under the floorboards.

That will not do, of course; it is unable to convey the logic of bourgeois capitalism and the mental life of its subjects. Better to say that, haunted by its displacement of the real, the bourgeoisie must reach after "the real" without pause. But the very grasping, the will to bring it near, is exactly what assures its absence; this is the heart of Benjamin's dialectical insight which indicates in turn the dialectical relation of the real and the movable.

It is also the Lacanian moment, of course: the Real that can never be reached, and decedes into the Symbolic on approach. Whether it is Benjamin's bourgeois or Lacan's subject, nowhere is his malady dramatized more enduringly than in the last, overfamiliar passages of The Great Gatsby, with its image of the great bourgeois copyist, Gatsby, reaching into what he believes is the future.

Notably, in the last paragraphs, he believes this twice—once after Nick has already refuted it, this future "so close he could hardly fail to grasp it." He can't, naturally: because the real in every sense shrinks from that particular grasp; because "it was already behind him, somewhere in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night." Still, the dream that it might be within reach, might still lie ahead, keeps him moving. I am nothing and must be everything: this, perhaps, summarizes Gatz's desolate drive. As it happens, the phrase is Marx's account of the mental state of the French peasant immediately before the Revolution, one apparently not yet satisfied by Gatsby's moment, or ours, and persisting in "the dark fields of the republic."

This, more or less, is what we mean when we say that the supermovable is the least royal—not because of, but by the same token that it is the least real. The copy comes to you now without any shy hesitation, requires no jaunt to the old agora. It is the inevitable endgame—this year's endgame, let us say, for there's always another waiting—of the commodity logic of bourgeois capitalism, and the rise of the bourgeois forms of social life itself. It is a logic that capitalism and culture equally represent to themselves as both a triumph and a crisis: for capital, one of movability; for culture, one of derealization.

Let us recast this issue once more. Along with Lessig and Stallman, record company executives and the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) locate the issue around the word "free." Specifically, they are concerned with pirates making free with "Beautiful." That we live in a moment when pirates are the figure for the free is a curious delight, especially since we do not sail the seas; rather, one supposes, in this case they sail us. That oddity shall return momentarily.

Before then, we might note that pirates face less legal threat if they simply move more slowly. If someone in Davis, California, purchases a copy of Christina Aguilera's Stripped at Armadillo Music, they can rip the digital file of "Beautiful" without threat of penalty. What if they then take Stripped and mail it to their friend in Iowa City, with a little gift card; can the recipient, who now owns that disc, rip "Beautiful" himself, and then send the disc on to a friend in New York as, you know, a gift? And so on. In short, if the digital file moves like furniture, there is little vexation over how free it might be. It is movable but not supermovable; it is real enough. No one will sued, or enjoined, or otherwise menaced by the RIAA's navy of lawyers.

But when it becomes supermovable? If the Davis resident buys the CD and, on the same day, friends in Iowa City and New York all download the file through a Gnutella P2P file-sharing network, this should not be meaningfully different. One disc has been purchased, three people have the song. Nonetheless this later series of events is intolerable to the RIAA. The thing they need to control, it turns out, is not "copies" in some general or even legal sense, but the speed-of-copying. Semi-mobile they can cope with; supermobility breeds hysteria. If the commodity cannot be said to be in a place at all, if it slips entirely free from the real of real estate into supermobility, we reach the end of the continuum, and things get strange. The supermovable tends toward total derealization, and total placelessless. It is nothing, and must be everywhere—and this, for the moment at least, must be the subject of massive scrutiny and control.

This industrial panic gives the lie to Lessig and Stallman; corporations, in their marionette dances of necessity, can sometimes be sharper at spotting a specious distinction than can intellectuals. What the RIAA (and the Motion Picture Association of America, and every other spokesmodel for content-copyrighters) have identified is exactly that information free-to-move cannot be parsed from information free-without-payment; that the two conceptions, mediated by the mostly-unstated term of the real, are inevitably congruent.

But there is no revolution here, though the word is ubiquitous: the phrase "digital revolution" yielded almost three million Google hits as of this morning (in April, 2006). The commodity is not a revolutionary actor. It has, however, a dialectical partner in the free market: labor itself. What we would finally hope to take note of is the extent to which the digital media file, Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," is a story of labor no less than of a commodity, and how consistently the discussions of this commodity decline to tell this story. Information wants to free, but only if seen from a historically particular position of distribution. From the historically particular position of labor, information wants something else entirely (and here we would note that this understanding leads away from Giovanni Postone's problematic—his rejection of an understanding of capitalism as seen from the perspective of labor, as if to strategically peer out from that position was the same as universalizing such a perspective).

Alan Liu, in the signal work Laws of Cool, returns to the dictum which begins this essay:

Now, perhaps, we can understand the true meaning of the emancipation proclamation of the information age first uttered in 1984 by Stewart Brand, publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog: "information wants to be free." In the era of the Whole Earth Corporation, "information wants to be free" is ultimately how we are no longer allowed to say "we" want to be free. "We," the subject and class of information culture, come fully to know our world only in the blinding moment of illumination when the world network routes around our knowledge. . . . "X" marks the spot where the whole generation of incipient knowledge workers in the United States succeeding the baby boomers—the generation caught in the "pipeline" from education to the corporation—has been deleted from the network. (Liu 69)

While we are not certain we concur with Liu's suspicion that information "routes around our knowledge," his attempt to locate freedom itself in the groundless, unreal estate of information networks is incisive. Such a historical question indeed subsumes the history of digital files, the history of "information" itself, while striving not just to be unanswerable but unaskable. The supermobility of information, of content, has a material history. It is, properly, the story of the vanishing work place, the derealized cubicle. Fax machines, digital packet transmission, compression protocols, networks, email, fat pipes, laptops, these are all in their ways artifacts of what was briefly called "telecommuting"—which is to say, "going to work" not as meubles go to the immeuble, but as an MP3 goes to an iPod. One notes that the ascent of pagers, mobile phones, PDAs and Blackberries parallels the ascent of cargo pants, that paratechnology of seeming labor mobility which can carry the office in their pockets. The iPods, PSPs and media jukeboxes follow with due haste to fill those pockets, but they follow. The technologies are called into being first to render us as supermovables, to work at home, on the road, in conference rooms and hotel rooms, cafes and bars and airplanes—decreasing the demand for real estate for both employer and employee.

And yet we do not move. That is, for all the to-ing and fro-ing, we increasingly lose the ability to move from the space of work. The space of work is the network, information-space, from which we are decreasingly free, and increasingly challenged to imagine what freedom would be. Just "going off the grid"? Certainly regressive, Edenic fantasies always have some purchase. Attempting to steal back something with the word "free" in it, one pirated download at a time? That is at least a useful understanding—though the loss to the record companies, even if it were left utterly unmitigated, would be little more than minor loss from friendly fire in capital's campaign against labor. The political appeal of file-sharing is not so much that it is a blow against some particularly noxious corporations, but that it is an activity en route to immanent thought about nascent and rising regimes of labor-logic—if (and only if) we can find our way to thinking about such things, rather than dawdling over the ethics of piracy. If mass culture demands increasingly mobile commodities, capital dialectically seeks to maximize labor time (that is, to proportionally decrease variable capital) while minimizing the fixed capital of, in this case, real estate costs. Both of these historical inevitabilities, and their all-too-pragmatic applications, constitute the mobility, the derealization concealed within "Beautiful." Even as the commodity becomes supermovable, work itself is pried from the shell of the workplace, from the real of real estate: in capital's logic, the work that is nowhere and must be everything. And this in turn is the recognition hidden in the aftertaste of free beer.

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Works Cited:

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française Database Project. http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/efts/ARTFL/projects/dicos/ACADEMIE/PREMIERE/

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Penguin, 2007.

Lessig, Lawrencce. Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Nicot, Jean. Thresor de la langue francoyse, 1606. http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/efts/ARTFL/projects/dicos/TLF-NICOT/

Oxford English Dicionary (Second Edition). New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Complete Tales & Poems. Victoria, BC: Castle Books, 2002.

Stallman, Richard M. Free Software, Free Society. Boston, MA: GNU Press, 2002.


About the Author:

Piratebureau is a collaborative research project with occasional nodes in Berkeley, Iowa City, and Paris; in main, it lives on the network, amidst the information sublime. Recent work includes "Another Green World: The Political Economy of the Hollywood Star," and numerous microfestos. Property = Pirates!

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Piratebureau. "Supermovables: The Fate of Unreal Estate, or a Treatise on the Social Problem Regarding Illegal File-Sharing." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. May 19, 2024 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/dlang/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Piratebureau, "Supermovables: The Fate of Unreal Estate, or a Treatise on the Social Problem Regarding Illegal File-Sharing. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/dlang/index.php› (accessed May 19, 2024)

APA Style Citation:
Piratebureau. (2007, May). "Supermovables: The Fate of Unreal Estate, or a Treatise on the Social Problem Regarding Illegal File-Sharing. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/sdiffrient/index.php


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