Graziano, Mars & Medak
Learning from #Syllabus
LEARNING FROM #SYLLABUS
VALERIA GRAZIANO, MARCELL MARS, TOMISLAV MEDAK
The syllabus is the manifesto of the 21st century.
—Sean Dockray and Benjamin Forster1
In August 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old boy living in Ferguson, Missouri,
was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson. Soon after, as the civil protests denouncing police brutality and institutional racism began to mount across the United
States, Dr. Marcia Chatelain, Associate Professor of History and African American
Studies at Georgetown University, launched an online call urging other academics
and teachers ‘to devote the first day of classes to a conversation about Ferguson’ and ‘to recommend texts, collaborate on conversation starters, and inspire
dialogue about some aspect of the Ferguson crisis.’2 Chatelain did so using the
Also in August 2014, using the hashtag #gamergate, groups of users on 4Chan,
8Chan, Twitter, and Reddit instigated a misogynistic harassment campaign against
game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, media critic Anita Sarkeesian, as well as
a number of other female and feminist game producers, journalists, and critics. In the
following weeks, The New Inquiry editors and contributors compiled a reading list and
issued a call for suggestions for their ‘TNI Syllabus: Gaming and Feminism’.3
In June 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United
States. In the weeks that followed, he became the presumptive Republican nominee,
and The Chronicle of Higher Education introduced the syllabus ‘Trump 101’.4 Historians N.D.B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain found ‘Trump 101’ inadequate, ‘a mock college syllabus […] suffer[ing] from a number of egregious omissions and inaccuracies’,
failing to include ‘contributions of scholars of color and address the critical subjects
of Trump’s racism, sexism, and xenophobia’. They assembled ‘Trump Syllabus 2.0’.5
Soon after, in response to a video in which Trump engaged in ‘an extremely lewd
conversation about women’ with TV host Billy Bush, Laura Ciolkowski put together a
‘Rape Culture Syllabus’.6
Sean Dockray, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office, ‘README.md’, Hyperreadings, 15 February
Marcia Chatelain, ‘Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus’, Dissent Magazine, 28 November 2014,
‘TNI Syllabus: Gaming and Feminism’, The New Inquiry, 2 September 2014, https://thenewinquiry.
‘Trump 101’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 June 2016, https://www.chronicle.com/article/
N.D.B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain, ‘Trump Syllabus 2.0’, Public Books, 28 June 2016, https://
Laura Ciolkowski, ‘Rape Culture Syllabus’, Public Books, 15 October 2016, https://www.
In April 2016, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe established the Sacred Stone
Camp and started the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the construction of
which threatened the only water supply at the Standing Rock Reservation. The protest at the site of the pipeline became the largest gathering of native Americans in
the last 100 years and they earned significant international support for their ReZpect
Our Water campaign. As the struggle between protestors and the armed forces unfolded, a group of Indigenous scholars, activists, and supporters of the struggles of
First Nations people and persons of color, gathered under the name the NYC Stands
for Standing Rock Committee, put together #StandingRockSyllabus.7
The list of online syllabi created in response to political struggles has continued to
grow, and at present includes many more examples:
All Monuments Must Fall Syllabus
Puerto Rico Syllabus (#PRSyllabus)
Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves
Syllabus: Women and Gender Non-Conforming People Writing about Tech
What To Do Instead of Calling the Police: A Guide, A Syllabus, A Conversation, A
It would be hard to compile a comprehensive list of all the online syllabi that have
been created by social justice movements in the last five years, especially, but not
exclusively, those initiated in North America in the context of feminist and anti-racist
activism. In what is now a widely spread phenomenon, these political struggles use
social networks and resort to the hashtag template ‘#___Syllabus’ to issue calls for
the bottom-up aggregation of resources necessary for political analysis and pedagogy
centering on their concerns. For this reason, we’ll call this phenomenon ‘#Syllabus’.
During the same years that saw the spread of the #Syllabus phenomenon, university
course syllabi have also been transitioning online, often in a top-down process initiated
by academic institutions, which has seen the syllabus become a contested document
in the midst of increasing casualization of teaching labor, expansion of copyright protections, and technology-driven marketization of education.
In what follows, we retrace the development of the online syllabus in both of these
contexts, to investigate the politics enmeshed in this new media object. Our argument
‘#StandingRockSyllabus’, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, 11 October 2016, https://
is that, on the one hand, #Syllabus names the problem of contemporary political culture as pedagogical in nature, while, on the other hand, it also exposes academicized
critical pedagogy and intellectuality as insufficiently political in their relation to lived
social reality. Situating our own stakes as both activists and academics in the present
debate, we explore some ways in which the radical politics of #Syllabus could be supported to grow and develop as an articulation of solidarity between amateur librarians
and radical educators.
#Syllabus in Historical Context: Social Movements and Self-Education
When Professor Chatelain launched her call for #FergusonSyllabus, she was mainly
addressing a community of fellow educators:
I knew Ferguson would be a challenge for teachers: When schools opened across
the country, how were they going to talk about what happened? My idea was simple, but has resonated across the country: Reach out to the educators who use
Twitter. Ask them to commit to talking about Ferguson on the first day of classes.
Suggest a book, an article, a film, a song, a piece of artwork, or an assignment that
speaks to some aspect of Ferguson. Use the hashtag: #FergusonSyllabus.8
Her call had a much greater resonance than she had originally anticipated as it reached
beyond the limits of the academic community. #FergusonSyllabus had both a significant impact in shaping the analysis and the response to the shooting of Michael
Brown, and in inspiring the many other #Syllabus calls that soon followed.
The #Syllabus phenomenon comprises different approaches and modes of operating. In some cases, the material is clearly claimed as the creation of a single individual, as in the case of #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus, which is prefaced on the project’s
landing page by a warning to readers that ‘material compiled in this syllabus should
not be duplicated without proper citation and attribution.’9 A very different position on
intellectual property has been embraced by other #Syllabus interventions that have
chosen a more commoning stance. #StandingRockSyllabus, for instance, is introduced as a crowd-sourced process and as a useful ‘tool to access research usually
kept behind paywalls.’10
The different workflows, modes of engagements, and positioning in relation to
intellectual property make #Syllabus readable as symptomatic of the multiplicity
that composes social justice movements. There is something old school—quite
literally—about the idea of calling a list of online resources a ‘syllabus’; a certain
quaintness, evoking thoughts of teachers and homework. This is worthy of investigation especially if contrasted with the attention dedicated to other online cultural
phenomena such as memes or fake news. Could it be that the online syllabus offers
Marcia Chatelain, ‘How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson’, The Atlantic, 25
August 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/08/how-to-teach-kids-aboutwhats-happening-in-ferguson/379049/.
Frank Leon Roberts, ‘Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest’, 2016, http://
‘#StandingRockSyllabus’, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, 11 October 2016, https://
a useful, fresh format precisely for the characteristics that foreground its connections to older pedagogical traditions and techniques, predating digital cultures?
#Syllabus can indeed be analyzed as falling within a long lineage of pedagogical tools
created by social movements to support processes of political subjectivation and the
building of collective consciousness. Activists and militant organizers have time and
again created and used various textual media objects—such as handouts, pamphlets,
cookbooks, readers, or manifestos—to facilitate a shared political analysis and foment
mass political mobilization.
In the context of the US, anti-racist movements have historically placed great emphasis on critical pedagogy and self-education. In 1964, the Council of Federated Organizations (an alliance of civil rights initiatives) and the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC), created a network of 41 temporary alternative
schools in Mississippi. Recently, the Freedom Library Project, a campaign born out
of #FergusonSyllabus to finance under-resourced pedagogical initiatives, openly
referenced this as a source of inspiration. The Freedom Summer Project of 1964
brought hundreds of activists, students, and scholars (many of whom were white)
from the north of the country to teach topics and issues that the discriminatory
state schools would not offer to black students. In the words of an SNCC report,
Freedom Schools were established following the belief that ‘education—facts to
use and freedom to use them—is the basis of democracy’,11 a conviction echoed
by the ethos of contemporary #Syllabus initiatives.
Bob Moses, a civil rights movement leader who was the head of the literary skills initiative in Mississippi, recalls the movement’s interest, at the time, in teaching methods
that used the very production of teaching materials as a pedagogical tool:
I had gotten hold of a text and was using it with some adults […] and noticed that
they couldn’t handle it because the pictures weren’t suited to what they knew […]
That got me into thinking about developing something closer to what people were
doing. What I was interested in was the idea of training SNCC workers to develop
material with the people we were working with.12
It is significant that for him the actual use of the materials the group created was much
less important than the process of producing the teaching materials together. This focus
on what could be named as a ‘pedagogy of teaching’, or perhaps more accurately ‘the
pedagogy of preparing teaching materials’, is also a relevant mechanism at play in the
current #Syllabus initiatives, as their crowdsourcing encourages different kinds of people
to contribute what they feel might be relevant resources for the broader movement.
Alongside the crucial import of radical black organizing, another relevant genealogy in
which to place #Syllabus would be the international feminist movement and, in particular, the strategies developed in the 70s campaign Wages for Housework, spearheaded
Daniel Perlstein, ‘Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools’,
History of Education Quarterly 30.3 (Autumn 1990): 302.
Perlstein, ‘Teaching Freedom’: 306.
by Selma James and Silvia Federici. The Wages for Housework campaign drove home
the point that unwaged reproductive labor provides a foundation for capitalist exploitation. They wanted to encourage women to denaturalize and question the accepted
division of labor into remunerated work outside the house and labor of love within
the confines of domesticity, discussing taboo topics such as ‘prostitution as socialized housework’ and ‘forced sterilization’ as issues impacting poor, often racialized,
women. The organizing efforts of Wages for Housework held political pedagogy at their
core. They understood that that pedagogy required:
having literature and other materials available to explain our goals, all written in a
language that women can understand. We also need different types of documents,
some more theoretical, others circulating information about struggles. It is important
that we have documents for women who have never had any political experience.
This is why our priority is to write a popular pamphlet that we can distribute massively and for free—because women have no money.13
The obstacles faced by the Wages for Housework campaign were many, beginning
with the issue of how to reach a dispersed constituency of isolated housewives
and how to keep the revolutionary message at the core of their claims accessible
to different groups. In order to tackle these challenges, the organizers developed
a number of innovative communication tactics and pedagogical tools, including
strategies to gain mainstream media coverage, pamphlets and leaflets translated
into different languages,14 a storefront shop in Brooklyn, and promotional tables at
Freedom Schools and the Wages for Housework campaign are only two amongst
the many examples of the critical pedagogies developed within social movements.
The #Syllabus phenomenon clearly stands in the lineage of this history, yet we should
also highlight its specificity in relation to the contemporary political context in which it
emerged. The #Syllabus acknowledges that since the 70s—and also due to students’
participation in protests and their display of solidarity with other political movements—
subjects such as Marxist critical theory, women studies, gender studies, and African
American studies, together with some of the principles first developed in critical pedagogy, have become integrated into the educational system. The fact that many initiators of #Syllabus initiatives are women and Black academics speaks to this historical
shift as an achievement of that period of struggles. However, the very necessity felt by
these educators to kick-start their #Syllabus campaigns outside the confines of academia simultaneously reveals the difficulties they encounter within the current privatized and exclusionary educational complex.
Silvia Federici and Arlen Austin (eds) The New York Wages for Housework Committee 1972-1977:
History, Theory and Documents. New York: Autonomedia, 2017: 37.
Some of the flyers and pamphlets were digitized by MayDay Rooms, ‘a safe haven for historical
material linked to social movements, experimental culture and the radical expression of
marginalised figures and groups’ in London, and can be found in their online archive: ‘Wages
for Housework: Pamphlets – Flyers – Photographs’, MayDay Rooms, http://maydayrooms.org/
#Syllabus as a Media Object
Besides its contextualization within the historical legacy of previous grassroots mobilizations, it is also necessary to discuss #Syllabus as a new media object in its own
right, in order to fully grasp its relevance for the future politics of knowledge production and transmission.
If we were to describe this object, a #Syllabus would be an ordered list of links to
scholarly texts, news reports, and audiovisual media, mostly aggregated through a
participatory and iterative process, and created in response to political events indicative of larger conditions of structural oppression. Still, as we have seen, #Syllabus
as a media object doesn’t follow a strict format. It varies based on the initial vision
of their initiators, political causes, and social composition of the relevant struggle.
Nor does it follow the format of traditional academic syllabi. While a list of learning
resources is at the heart of any syllabus, a boilerplate university syllabus typically
also includes objectives, a timetable, attendance, coursework, examination, and an
outline of the grading system used for the given course. Relieved of these institutional
requirements, the #Syllabus typically includes only a reading list and a hashtag. The
reading list provides resources for understanding what is relevant to the here and
now, while the hashtag provides a way to disseminate across social networks the call
to both collectively edit and teach what is relevant to the here and now. Both the list
and the hashtag are specificities and formal features of the contemporary (internet)
culture and therefore merit further exploration in relation to the social dynamics at
play in #Syllabus initiatives.
The different phases of the internet’s development approached the problem of the
discoverability of relevant information in different ways. In the early days, the Gopher
protocol organized information into a hierarchical file tree. With the rise of World Wide
Web (WWW), Yahoo tried to employ experts to classify and catalog the internet into
a directory of links. That seemed to be a successful approach for a while, but then
Google (founded in 1998) came along and started to use a webgraph of links to rank
the importance of web pages relative to a given search query.
In 2005, Clay Shirky wrote the essay ‘Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links and
Tags’,15 developed from his earlier talk ‘Folksonomies and Tags: The Rise of User-Developed Classification’. Shirky used Yahoo’s attempt to categorize the WWW to argue
against any attempt to classify a vast heterogenous body of information into a single
hierarchical categorical system. In his words: ‘[Yahoo] missed [...] that, if you’ve got
enough links, you don’t need the hierarchy anymore. There is no shelf. There is no file
system. The links alone are enough.’ Those words resonated with many. By following
simple formatting rules, we, the internet users, whom Time magazine named Person of
the Year in 2006, proved that it is possible to collectively write the largest encyclopedia
ever. But, even beyond that, and as per Shirky’s argument, if enough of us organized
our own snippets of the vast body of the internet, we could replace old canons, hierarchies, and ontologies with folksonomies, social bookmarks, and (hash)tags.
Clay Shirky, ‘Ontology Is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags’, 2005, http://shirky.com/writings/
Very few who lived through those times would have thought that only a few years later
most user-driven services would be acquired by a small number of successful companies and then be shut down. Or, that Google would decide not to include the biggest
hashtag-driven platform, Twitter, into its search index and that the search results on
its first page would only come from a handful of usual suspects: media conglomerates, Wikipedia, Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, Reddit, Quora. Or, that Twitter would
become the main channel for the racist, misogynist, fascist escapades of the President
of United States.
This internet folk naivety—stoked by an equally enthusiastic, venture-capital-backed
startup culture—was not just naivety. This was also a period of massive experimental
use of these emerging platforms. Therefore, this history would merit to be properly
revisited and researched. In this text, however, we can only hint to this history: to contextualize how the hashtag as a formalization initially emerged, and how with time the
user-driven web lost some of its potential. Nonetheless, hashtags today still succeed in
propagating political mobilizations in the network environment. Some will say that this
propagation is nothing but a reflection of the internet as a propaganda machine, and
there’s no denying that hashtags do serve a propaganda function. However, it equally
matters that hashtags retain the capacity to shape coordination and self-organization,
and they are therefore a reflection of the internet as an organization machine.
As mentioned, #Syllabus as a media object is an ordered list of links to resources.
In the long history of knowledge retrieval systems and attempts to help users find
relevant information from big archives, the list on the internet continues in the tradition of the index card catalog in libraries, of charts in the music industry, or mixtapes
and playlists in popular culture, helping people tell their stories of what is relevant and
what isn’t through an ordered sequence of items. The list (as a format) together with
the hashtag find themselves in the list (pun intended) of the most iconic media objects
of the internet. In the network media environment, being smart in creating new lists
became the way to displace old lists of relevance, the way to dismantle canons, the
way to unlearn. The way to become relevant.
The Academic Syllabus Migrates Online
#Syllabus interventions are a challenge issued by political struggles to educators as
they expose a fundamental contradiction in the operations of academia. While critical pedagogies of yesteryear’s social movements have become integrated into the
education system, the radical lessons that these pedagogies teach students don’t
easily reconcile with their experience: professional practice courses, the rethoric of
employability and compulsory internships, where what they learn is merely instrumental, leaves them wondering how on earth they are to apply their Marxism or feminism
to their everyday lives?
Cognitive dissonance is at the basis of degrees in the liberal arts. And to make things
worse, the marketization of higher education, the growing fees and the privatization
of research has placed universities in a position where they increasingly struggle to
provide institutional space for critical interventions in social reality. As universities become more dependent on the ‘customer satisfaction’ of their students for survival, they
steer away from heated political topics or from supporting faculty members who might
decide to engage with them. Borrowing the words of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten,
‘policy posits curriculum against study’,16 creating the paradoxical situation wherein
today’s universities are places in which it is possible to do almost everything except
study. What Harney and Moten propose instead is the re-appropriation of the diffuse
capacity of knowledge generation that stems from the collective processes of selforganization and commoning. As Moten puts it: ‘When I think about the way we use the
term ‘study,’ I think we are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other
people.’17 And it is this practice of sharing a common repertoire—what Moten and
Harney call ‘rehearsal’18—that is crucially constitutive of a crowdsourced #Syllabus.
This contradiction and the tensions it brings to contemporary neoliberal academia can
be symptomatically observed in the recent evolution of the traditional academic syllabus. As a double consequence of (some) critical pedagogies becoming incorporated
into the teaching process and universities striving to reduce their liability risks, academic syllabi have become increasingly complex and extensive documents. They are
now understood as both a ‘social contract’ between the teachers and their students,
and ‘terms of service’19 between the institution providing educational services and the
students increasingly framed as sovereign consumers making choices in the market of
educational services. The growing official import of the syllabus has had the effect that
educators have started to reflect on how the syllabus translates the power dynamics
into their classroom. For instance, the critical pedagogue Adam Heidebrink-Bruno has
demanded that the syllabus be re-conceived as a manifesto20—a document making
these concerns explicit. And indeed, many academics have started to experiment with
the form and purpose of the syllabus, opening it up to a process of co-conceptualization with their students, or proposing ‘the other syllabus’21 to disrupt asymmetries.
At the same time, universities are unsurprisingly moving their syllabi online. A migration
that can be read as indicative of three larger structural shifts in academia.
First, the push to make syllabi available online, initiated in the US, reinforces the differential effects of reputation economy. It is the Ivy League universities and their professorial star system that can harness the syllabus to advertise the originality of their
scholarship, while the underfunded public universities and junior academics are burdened with teaching the required essentials. This practice is tied up with the replication
in academia of the different valorization between what is considered to be the labor of
production (research) and that of social reproduction (teaching). The low esteem (and
corresponding lower rewards and remuneration) for the kinds of intellectual labors that
can be considered labors of care—editing journals, reviewing papers or marking, for
instance—fits perfectly well with the gendered legacies of the academic institution.
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, New York:
Autonomedia, 2013, p. 81.
17 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, p. 110.
18 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, p. 110.
19 Angela Jenks, ‘It’s In The Syllabus’, Teaching Tools, Cultural Anthropology website, 30 June 2016,
20 Adam Heidebrink-Bruno, ‘Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture’,
Hybrid Pedagogy, 28 August 2014, http://hybridpedagogy.org/syllabus-manifesto-criticalapproach-classroom-culture/.
21 Lucy E. Bailey, ‘The “Other” Syllabus: Rendering Teaching Politics Visible in the Graduate
Pedagogy Seminar’, Feminist Teacher 20.2 (2010): 139–56.
Second, with the withdrawal of resources to pay precarious and casualized academics during their ‘prep’ time (that is, the time in which they can develop new
course material, including assembling new lists of references, updating their courses as well as the methodologies through which they might deliver these), syllabi
now assume an ambivalent role between the tendencies for collectivization and
individualization of insecurity. The reading lists contained in syllabi are not covered
by copyrights; they are like playlists or recipes, which historically had the effect of
encouraging educators to exchange lesson plans and make their course outlines
freely available as a valuable knowledge common. Yet, in the current climate where
universities compete against each other, the authorial function is being extended
to these materials too. Recently, US universities have been leading a trend towards
the interpretation of the syllabus as copyrightable material, an interpretation that
opened up, as would be expected, a number of debates over who is a syllabus’
rightful owner, whether the academics themselves or their employers. If the latter interpretation were to prevail, this would enable universities to easily replace
academics while retaining their contributions to the pedagogical offer. The fruits of
a teacher’s labor could thus be turned into instruments of their own deskilling and
casualization: why would universities pay someone to write a course when they can
recycle someone else’s syllabus and get a PhD student or a precarious post doc to
teach the same class at a fraction of the price?
This tendency to introduce a logic of property therefore spurs competitive individualism and erasure of contributions from others. Thus, crowdsourcing the syllabus
in the context of growing precarization of labor risks remaining a partial process,
as it might heighten the anxieties of those educators who do not enjoy the security
of a stable job and who are therefore the most susceptible to the false promises of
copyright enforcement and authorship understood as a competitive, small entrepreneurial activity. However, when inserted in the context of live, broader political
struggles, the opening up of the syllabus could and should be an encouragement
to go in the opposite direction, providing a ground to legitimize the collective nature
of the educational process and to make all academic resources available without
copyright restrictions, while devising ways to secure the proper attribution and the
just remuneration of everyone’s labor.
The introduction of the logic of property is hard to challenge as it is furthered by commercial academic publishers. Oligopolists, such as Elsevier, are not only notorious for
using copyright protections to extract usurious profits from the mostly free labor of
those who write, peer review, and edit academic journals,22 but they are now developing all sorts of metadata, metrics, and workflow systems that are increasingly becoming central for teaching and research. In addition to their publishing business, Elsevier
has expanded its ‘research intelligence’ offering, which now encompasses a whole
range of digital services, including the Scopus citation database; Mendeley reference
manager; the research performance analytics tools SciVal and Research Metrics; the
centralized research management system Pure; the institutional repository and pub-
22 Vincent Larivière, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon, ‘The Oligopoly of Academic
Publishers in the Digital Era’, PLoS ONE 10.6 (10 June 2015),https://journals.plos.org/plosone/
lishing platform Bepress; and, last but not least, grant discovery and funding flow tools
Funding Institutional and Elsevier Funding Solutions. Given how central digital services
are becoming in today’s universities, whoever owns these platforms is the university.
Third, the migration online of the academic syllabus falls into larger efforts by universities to ‘disrupt’ the educational system through digital technologies. The introduction
of virtual learning environments has led to lesson plans, slides, notes, and syllabi becoming items to be deposited with the institution. The doors of public higher education are being opened to commercial qualification providers by means of the rise in
metrics-based management, digital platforming of university services, and transformation of students into consumers empowered to make ‘real-time’ decisions on how to
spend their student debt.23 Such neoliberalization masquerading behind digitization
is nowhere more evident than in the hype that was generated around Massive Open
Online Courses (MOOCs), exactly at the height of the last economic crisis.
MOOCs developed gradually from the Massachusetts Institute of Techology’s (MIT) initial experiments with opening up its teaching materials to the public through the OpenCourseWare project in 2001. By 2011, MOOCs were saluted as a full-on democratization of access to ‘Ivy-League-caliber education [for] the world’s poor.’24 And yet, their
promise quickly deflated following extremely low completion rates (as low as 5%).25
Believing that in fifty years there will be no more than 10 institutions globally delivering
higher education,26 by the end of 2013 Sebastian Thrun (Google’s celebrated roboticist
who in 2012 founded the for-profit MOOC platform Udacity), had to admit that Udacity
offered a ‘lousy product’ that proved to be a total failure with ‘students from difficult
neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in
their lives.’27 Critic Aaron Bady has thus rightfully argued that:
[MOOCs] demonstrate what the technology is not good at: accreditation and mass
education. The MOOC rewards self-directed learners who have the resources and
privilege that allow them to pursue learning for its own sake [...] MOOCs are also a
really poor way to make educational resources available to underserved and underprivileged communities, which has been the historical mission of public education.28
Indeed, the ‘historical mission of public education’ was always and remains to this
day highly contested terrain—the very idea of a public good being under attack by
dominant managerial techniques that try to redefine it, driving what Randy Martin
23 Ben Williamson, ‘Number Crunching: Transforming Higher Education into “Performance Data”’,
Medium, 16 August 2018, https://medium.com/ussbriefs/number-crunching-transforming-highereducation-into-performance-data-9c23debc4cf7.
24 Max Chafkin, ‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course’,
FastCompany, 14 November 2013, https://www.fastcompany.com/3021473/udacity-sebastianthrun-uphill-climb/.
25 ‘The Rise (and Fall?) Of the MOOC’, Oxbridge Essays, 14 November 2017, https://www.
26 Steven Leckart, ‘The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever’,
Wired, 20 March 2012, https://www.wired.com/2012/03/ff_aiclass/.
27 Chafkin, ‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun’.
28 Aaron Bady, ‘The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform’, Liberal Education 99.4 (Fall 2013),
aptly called the ‘financialization of daily life.’29 The failure of MOOCs finally points to a
broader question, also impacting the vicissitudes of #Syllabus: Where will actual study
practices find refuge in the social, once the social is made directly productive for capital at all times? Where will study actually ‘take place’, in the literal sense of the phrase,
claiming the resources that it needs for co-creation in terms of time, labor, and love?
Learning from #Syllabus
What have we learned from the #Syllabus phenomenon?
The syllabus is the manifesto of 21st century.
Political struggles against structural discrimination, oppression, and violence in the
present are continuing the legacy of critical pedagogies of earlier social movements
that coupled the process of political subjectivation with that of collective education.
By creating effective pedagogical tools, movements have brought educators and students into the fold of their struggles. In the context of our new network environment,
political struggles have produced a new media object: #Syllabus, a crowdsourced list
of resources—historic and present—relevant to a cause. By doing so, these struggles
adapt, resist, and live in and against the networks dominated by techno-capital, with
all of the difficulties and contradictions that entails.
What have we learned from the academic syllabus migrating online?
In the contemporary university, critical pedagogy is clashing head-on with the digitization of higher education. Education that should empower and research that should
emancipate are increasingly left out in the cold due to the data-driven marketization
of academia, short-cutting the goals of teaching and research to satisfy the fluctuating demands of labor market and financial speculation. Resistance against the capture of data, research workflows, and scholarship by means of digitization is a key
struggle for the future of mass intellectuality beyond exclusions of class, disability,
gender, and race.
What have we learned from #Syllabus as a media object?
As old formats transform into new media objects, the digital network environment defines the conditions in which these new media objects try to adjust, resist, and live. A
right intuition can intervene and change the landscape—not necessarily for the good,
particularly if the imperatives of capital accumulation and social control prevail. We
thus need to re-appropriate the process of production and distribution of #Syllabus
as a media object in its totality. We need to build tools to collectively control the workflows that are becoming the infrastructures on top of which we collaboratively produce
knowledge that is vital for us to adjust, resist, and live. In order to successfully intervene in the world, every aspect of production and distribution of these new media objects becomes relevant. Every single aspect counts. The order of items in a list counts.
The timestamp of every version of the list counts. The name of every contributor to
29 Randy Martin, Financialization Of Daily Life, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
every version of the list counts. Furthermore, the workflow to keep track of all of these
aspects is another complex media object—a software tool of its own—with its own order and its own versions. It is a recursive process of creating an autonomous ecology.
#Syllabus can be conceived as a recursive process of versioning lists, pointing to textual, audiovisual, or other resources. With all of the linked resources publicly accessible to all; with all versions of the lists editable by all; with all of the edits attributable to
their contributors; with all versions, all linked resources, all attributions preservable by
all, just such an autonomous ecology can be made for #Syllabus. In fact, Sean Dockray, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office have already proposed such a methodology in
their Hyperreadings, a forkable readme.md plaintext document on GitHub. They write:
A text that by its nature points to other texts, the syllabus is already a relational
document acknowledging its own position within a living field of knowledge. It is
decidedly not self-contained, however it often circulates as if it were.
If a syllabus circulated as a HyperReadings document, then it could point directly to the texts and other media that it aggregates. But just as easily as it circulates, a HyperReadings syllabus could be forked into new versions: the syllabus
is changed because there is a new essay out, or because of a political disagreement, or because following the syllabus produced new suggestions. These forks
become a family tree where one can follow branches and trace epistemological
It is in line with this vision, which we share with the HyperReadings crew, and in line
with our analysis, that we, as amateur librarians, activists, and educators, make our
promise beyond the limits of this text.
The workflow that we are bootstrapping here will keep in mind every aspect of the media object syllabus (order, timestamp, contributor, version changes), allowing diversity
via forking and branching, and making sure that every reference listed in a syllabus
will find its reference in a catalog which will lead to the actual material, in digital form,
needed for the syllabus.
Against the enclosures of copyright, we will continue building shadow libraries and
archives of struggles, providing access to resources needed for the collective processes of education.
Against the corporate platforming of workflows and metadata, we will work with social
movements, political initiatives, educators, and researchers to aggregate, annotate,
version, and preserve lists of resources.
Against the extractivism of academia, we will take care of the material conditions that
are needed for such collective thinking to take place, both on- and offline.
30 Sean Dockray, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office, ‘README.md’, Hyperreadings, 15 February
Bady, Aaron. ‘The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform’, Liberal Education 99.4 (Fall 2013), https://
Bailey, Lucy E. ‘The “Other” Syllabus: Rendering Teaching Politics Visible in the Graduate Pedagogy
Seminar’, Feminist Teacher 20.2 (2010): 139–56.
Chafkin, Max. ‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course’,
FastCompany, 14 November 2013, https://www.fastcompany.com/3021473/udacity-sebastianthrun-uphill-climb/.
Chatelain, Marcia. ‘How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson’, The Atlantic, 25 August
_____. ‘Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus’, Dissent Magazine, 28 November 2014, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/teaching-ferguson-syllabus/.
Ciolkowski, Laura. ‘Rape Culture Syllabus’, Public Books, 15 October 2016, https://www.publicbooks.
Connolly, N.D.B. and Keisha N. Blain. ‘Trump Syllabus 2.0’, Public Books, 28 June 2016, https://www.
Dockray, Sean, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office. ‘README.md’, HyperReadings, 15 February 2018,
Federici, Silvia, and Arlen Austin (eds) The New York Wages for Housework Committee 1972-1977: History, Theory, Documents, New York: Autonomedia, 2017.
Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, New York:
Heidebrink-Bruno, Adam. ‘Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture’, Hybrid
Pedagogy, 28 August 2014, http://hybridpedagogy.org/syllabus-manifesto-critical-approach-classroom-culture/.
Jenks, Angela. ‘It’s In The Syllabus’, Teaching Tools, Cultural Anthropology website, 30 June 2016,
Larivière, Vincent, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon, ‘The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era’, PLoS ONE 10.6 (10 June 2015), https://journals.plos.org/plosone/
Leckart, Steven. ‘The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever’, Wired,
20 March 2012, https://www.wired.com/2012/03/ff_aiclass/.
Martin, Randy. Financialization Of Daily Life, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
Perlstein, Daniel. ‘Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools’,
History of Education Quarterly 30.3 (Autumn 1990).
Roberts, Frank Leon. ‘Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest’, 2016, http://www.
‘#StandingRockSyllabus’, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, 11 October 2016, https://nycstandswithstandingrock.wordpress.com/standingrocksyllabus/.
Shirky, Clay. ‘Ontology Is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags’, 2005, http://shirky.com/writings/
‘The Rise (and Fall?) Of the MOOC’, Oxbridge Essays, 14 November 2017, https://www.oxbridgeessays.
‘TNI Syllabus: Gaming and Feminism’, The New Inquiry, 2 September 2014, https://thenewinquiry.com/
‘Trump 101’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 June 2016, https://www.chronicle.com/article/
‘Wages for Housework: Pamphlets – Flyers – Photographs,’ MayDay Rooms, http://maydayrooms.org/
Williamson, Ben. ‘Number Crunching: Transforming Higher Education into “Performance Data”’,
Medium, 16 August 2018, https://medium.com/ussbriefs/number-crunching-transforming-highereducation-into-performance-data-9c23debc4cf7/.
Pirate Care: How do we imagine the health care for the future we want?
Pirate Care - How do we imagine the health care for the future we want?
Oct 5, 2018 · 19 min read
by Valeria Graziano
A recent trend to reimagine the systems of care for the future is based on many of the principles of self-organization. From the passive figure of the patient — an aptly named subject, patiently awaiting aid from medical staff and carers — researchers and policymakers are moving towards a model defined as people-powered health — where care is discussed as transforming from a top-down service to a network of coordinated actors.
At the same time, for large numbers of people, to self-organize around their own healthcare needs is not a matter of predilection, but increasingly one of necessity. In Greece, where the measures imposed by the Troika decimated public services, a growing number of grassroots clinics set up by the Solidarity Movement have been providing medical attention to those without a private insurance. In Italy, initiatives such as the Ambulatorio Medico Popolare in Milan offer free consultations to migrants and other vulnerable citizens.
The new characteristic in all of these cases is the fact that they frame what they do in clearly political terms, rejecting or sidestepping the more neutral ways in which the third sector and the NGOs have long presented care practices as apolitical, as ways to help out that should never ask questions bigger than the problems they set out to confront, and as standing beyond left and right (often for the sake of not alienating potential donors and funders).
Rather, the current trends towards self-organization in health care are very vocal and clear in their messages: the care system is in crisis, and we need to learn from what we know already. One thing we know is that the market or the financialization of assets cannot be the solution (do you remember when just a few years ago Occupy was buying back healthcare debts from financial speculators, thus saving thousands Americans from dire economic circumstances? Or that scene from Michael Moore’s Sicko, the documentary where a guy has to choose which finger to have amputated because he does not have enough cash for saving both?).
Another thing we also know is that we cannot simply hold on to past models of managing the public sector, as most national healthcare systems were built for the needs of the last century. Administrations have been struggling to adapt to the changing nature of health conditions (moving from a predominance of epidemic to chronic diseases) and the different needs of today’s populations. And finally, we most definitely know that to go back to even more conservative ideas that frame care as a private issue that should fall on the shoulders of family members (and most often, of female relatives) or hired servants (also gendered and racialised) is not the best we can come up with.
Among the many initiatives that are rethinking how we organize the provision of health and care in ways that are accessible, fair, and efficient, there are a number of actors — mostly small organizations — who are experimenting with the opportunities introduced by digital technologies. While many charities and NGOs remain largely ignorant of the opportunities offered by technology, these new actors are developing DIY devices, wearables, 3D-printed bespoke components, apps and smart objects to intervene in areas otherwise neglected by the bigger players in the care system. These practices are presenting a new mode of operating that I want to call ‘pirate care’.
Piracy and Care are not always immediately relatable notions. The figure of the pirate in popular and media cultures is often associated with cunning intelligence and masculine modes of action, of people running servers which are allowing people to illegally download music or movie files. One of the very first organizations that articulated the stakes of sharing knowledge was actually named Piratbyrån. “When you pirate mp3s, you are downloading communism” was a popular motto at the time. And yet, bringing the idea of a pirate ethics into resonance with contemporary modes of care invites a different consideration for practices that propose a paradigm change and therefore inevitably position themselves in tricky positions vis-à-vis the law and the status quo. I have been noticing for a while now that another kind of contemporary pirate is coming to the fore in our messy society in the midst of many crises. This new kind of pirate could be best captured by another image: this time it is a woman, standing on the dock of a boat sailing through the Caribbean sea towards the Mexican Gulf, about to deliver abortion pills to other women for whom this option is illegal in their country.
Women on Waves, founded in 1999, engages in its abortion-on-boat missions every couple of years. They are mostly symbolic actions, as they are rather expensive operations, and yet they are potent means for stirring public debate and have often been met with hostility — even military fleets. So far, they have visited seven countries so far, including Mexico, Guatemala and, more recently, Ireland and Poland, where feminists movements have been mobilizing in huge numbers to reclaim reproductive rights.
According to official statistics, more than 47,000 women die every year from complications resulting from illegal, unsafe abortion procedures, a service used by over 21 million women who do not have another choice. As Leticia Zenevich, spokesperson of Women on Waves, told HuffPost: “The fact that women need to leave the state sovereignty to retain their own sovereignty ― it makes clear states are deliberately stopping women from accessing their human right to health.” Besides the boat campaigns, the organization also runs Women on Web, an online medical abortion service active since 2005. The service is active in 17 languages, and it is helping more than 100,000 women per year to get information and access abortion pills. More recently, Women on Waves also begun experimenting with the use of drones to deliver the pills in countries impacted by restrictive laws (such as Poland in 2015 and Northern Ireland in 2016).
Women on Waves are the perfect figure to begin to illustrate my idea of ‘pirate care’. By this term I want to bring attention to an emergent phenomenon in the contemporary world, where more and more often initiatives that want to bring support and care to the most vulnerable subjects in the most unstable situations, increasingly have to do so by operating in that grey zone that exists between the gaps left open by various rules, laws and technologies. Some thrive in this shadow area, carefully avoiding calling attention to themselves for fear of attracting ferocious polemics and the trolling that inevitably accompanies them. In other cases, care practices that were previously considered the norm have now been pushed towards illegality.
Consider for instance the situation highlighted by the Docs Not Cops campaign that started in the UK four years ago, when the government had just introduced its ‘hostile environment’ policy with the aim to make everyday life as hard as possible for migrants with an irregular status. Suddenly, medical staff in hospitals and other care facilities were supposed to carry out document checks before being allowed to offer any assistance. Their mobilization denounced the policy as an abuse of mandate on the part of the Home Office and a threat to public health, given that it effectively discouraged patients to seek help for fear of retaliations. Another sadly famous example of this trend of pushing many acts of care towards illegality would the straitjacketing and criminalization of migrant rescuing NGOs in the Mediterranean on the part of various European countries, a policy led by Italian government. Yet another example would be the increasing number of municipal decrees that make it a crime to offer food, money or shelter to the homeless in many cities in North America and Europe.
This scenario reminds us of the tragic story of Antigone and the age-old question of what to do when the relationship between what the law says and one what feels it is just becomes fraught with tensions and contradictions. Here, the second meaning of ‘pirate care’ becomes apparent as it points to the way in which a number of initiatives have been responding to the current crisis by mobilizing tactics and ethics as first developed within the hacker movement.
As described by Steven Levy in Hackers, the general principles of a hacker ethic include sharing, openness, decentralization, free access to knowledge and tools, and an effort of contributing to society’s democratic wellbeing. To which we could add, following Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, that “bureaucracy should not be allowed to get in the way of doing anything useful.” While here Stallman was reflecting on the experience of the M.I.T. AI Lab in 1971, his critique of bureaucracy captures well a specific trait of the techno-political nexus that is also shaping the present moment: as more technologies come to mediate everyday interactions, they are also reshaping the very structure of the institutions and organizations we inhabit, so that our lives are increasingly formatted to meet the requirements of an unprecedented number of standardised procedures, compulsory protocols, and legal obligations.
According to anthropologists David Graeber, we are living in an era of “total bureaucratization”. But while contemporary populism often presents bureaucracy as a problem of the public sector, implicitly suggesting “the market” to be the solution, Graeber’s study highlights how historically all so-called “free markets” have actually been made possible through the strict enforcement of state regulations. Since the birth of the modern corporation in 19th century America, “bureaucratic techniques (performance reviews, focus groups, time allocation surveys …) developed in financial and corporate circles came to invade the rest of society — education, science, government — and eventually, to pervade almost every aspect of everyday life.”
The forceps and the speculum
And thus, in resonance with the tradition of hacker ethics, a number of ‘pirate care’ practices are intervening in reshaping what looking after our collective health will look like in the future. CADUS, for example, is a Berlin based NGO which has recently set up a Crisis Response Makerspace to build open and affordable medical equipment specifically designed to bring assistance in extreme crisis zones where not many other organizations would venture, such as Syria and Northern Iraq. After donating their first mobile hospital to the Kurdish Red Crescent last year, CADUS is now working to develop a second version, in a container this time, able to be deployed in conflict zones deprived of any infrastructure, and a civil airdrop system to deliver food and medical equipment as fast as possible. The fact that CADUS adopted the formula of the makerspace to invent open emergency solutions that no private company would be interested in developing is not a coincidence, but emerges from a precise vision of how healthcare innovations should be produced and disseminated, and not only for extreme situations.
“Open source is the only way for medicine” — says Marcus Baw of Open Health Hub — as “medical software now is medicine”. Baw has been involved in another example of ‘pirate care’ in the UK, founding a number of initiatives to promote the adoption of open standards, open source code, and open governance in Health IT. The NHS spends about £500 million each time it refreshes Windows licenses, and aside from avoiding the high costs, an open source GP clinical system would be the only way to address the pressing ethical issue facing contemporary medicine: as software and technology become more and more part of the practice of medicine itself, they need to be subject to peer-review and scrutiny to assess their clinical safety. Moreover, that if such solutions are found to be effective and safe lives, it is the duty of all healthcare practitioners to share their knowledge with the rest of humanity, as per the Hippocratic Oath. To illustrate what happens when medical innovations are kept secret, Baw shares the story of the Chamberlen family of obstetricians, who kept the invention of the obstetric forceps, a family trade secret for over 150 years, using the tool only to treat their elite clientele of royals and aristocracy. As a result, thousands of mothers and babies likely died in preventable circumstances.
It is perhaps significant that such a sad historical example of the consequences ofclosed medicine must come from the field of gynaecology, one of the most politically charged areas of medical specialization to this day. So much so that last year another collective of ‘pirate carers’ named GynePunk developed a biolab toolkit for emergency gynaecological care, to allow those excluded from the reproductive healthcare — undocumented migrants, trans and queer women, drug users and sex workers — to perform basic checks on their own bodily fluids. Their prototypes include a centrifuge, a microscope and an incubator that can be cheaply realised by repurposing components of everyday items such as DVD players and computer fans, or by digital fabrication. In 2015, GynePunk also developed a 3D-printable speculum and — who knows? — perhaps their next project might include a pair of forceps…
As the ‘pirate care’ approach keeps proliferating more and more, its tools and modes of organizing is keeping alive a horizon in which healthcare is not de facto reduced to a privilege.
PS. This article was written before the announcement of the launch of Mediterranea, which we believe to be another important example of pirate care. #piratecare #abbiamounanave
The Surplus of Copying
## essay #11
The Surplus of Copying
How Shadow Libraries and Pirate Archives Contribute to the
Creation of Cultural Memory and the Commons
By Cornelia Sollfrank
Digital artworks tend to have a problematic relationship with the white
cube—in particular, when they are intended and optimized for online
distribution. While curators and exhibition-makers usually try to avoid
showing such works altogether, or at least aim at enhancing their sculptural
qualities to make them more presentable, the exhibition _Top Tens_ featured an
abundance of web quality digital artworks, thus placing emphasis on the very
media condition of such digital artifacts. The exhibition took place at the
Onassis Cultural Center in Athens in March 2018 and was part of the larger
festival _Shadow Libraries: UbuWeb in Athens_ ,1 an event to introduce the
online archive UbuWeb2 to the Greek audience and discuss related cultural,
ethical, technical, and legal issues. This text takes the event—and the
exhibition in particular—as a starting point for a closer look at UbuWeb and
the role an artistic approach can play in building cultural memory within the
neoliberal knowledge economy.
_UbuWeb—The Cultural Memory of the Avant-Garde_
Since Kenneth Goldsmith started Ubu in 1997 the site has become a major point
of reference for anyone interested in exploring twentieth-century avant-garde
art. The online archive provides free and unrestricted access to a remarkable
collection of thousands of artworks—among them almost 700 films and videos,
over 1000 sound art pieces, dozens of filmed dance productions, an
overwhelming amount of visual poetry and conceptual writing, critical
documents, but also musical scores, patents, electronic music resources, plus
an edition of vital new literature, the /ubu editions. Ubu contextualizes the
archived objects within curated sections and also provides framing academic
essays. Although it is a project run by Goldsmith without a budget, it has
built a reputation for making all the things available one would not find
elsewhere. The focus on “avant-garde” may seem a bit pretentious at first, but
when you look closer at the project, its operator and the philosophy behind
it, it becomes obvious how much sense this designation makes. Understanding
the history of the twentieth-century avant-garde as “a history of subversive
takes on creativity, originality, and authorship,”3 such spirit is not only
reflected in terms of the archive’s contents but also in terms of the project
as a whole. Theoretical statements by Goldsmith in which he questions concepts
such as authorship, originality, and creativity support this thesis4—and with
that a conflictual relationship with the notion of intellectual property is
preprogrammed. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the increasing
popularity of the project goes hand-in-hand with a growing discussion about
its ethical justification.
At the heart of Ubu, there is the copy! Every item in the archive is a digital
copy, either of another digital item or, in fact, it is the digitized version
of an analog object.5 That is to say, the creation of a digital collection is
inevitably based on copying the desired archive records and storing them on
dedicated media. However, making a copy is in itself a copyright-relevant act,
if the respective item is an original creation and as such protected under
copyright law.6 Hence, “any reproduction of a copyrighted work infringes the
copyright of the author or the corresponding rights of use of the copyright
holder”.7 Whether the existence of an artwork within the Ubu collection is a
case of copyright infringement varies with each individual case and depends on
the legal status of the respective work, but also on the way the rights
holders decide to act. As with all civil law, there is no judge without a
plaintiff, which means even if there is no express consent by the rights
holders, the work can remain in the archive as long as there is no request for
removal.8 Its status, however, is precarious. We find ourselves in the
notorious gray zone of copyright law where nothing is clear and many things
are possible—until somebody decides to challenge this status. Exploring the
borders of this experimental playground involves risk-taking, but, at the same
time, it is the only way to preserve existing freedoms and make a case for
changing cultural needs, which have not been considered in current legal
settings. And as the 20 years of Ubu’s existence demonstrate, the practice may
be experimental and precarious, but with growing cultural relevance and
reputation it is also gaining in stability.
_Fair Use and Public Interest_
At all public appearances and public presentations Goldsmith and his
supporters emphasize the educational character of the project and its non-
commercial orientation.9 Such a characterization is clearly intended to take
the wind out of the sails of its critics from the start and to shift the
attention away from the notion of piracy and toward questions of public
interest and the common good.
From a cultural point of view, the project unquestionably is of inestimable
value; a legal defense, however, would be a difficult undertaking. Copyright
law, in fact, has a built-in opening, the so-called copyright exceptions or
fair use regulations. They vary according to national law and cultural
traditions and allow for the use of copyrighted works under certain, defined
provisions without permission of the owner. The exceptions basically apply to
the areas of research and private study (both non-commercial), education,
review, and criticism and are described through general guidelines. “These
defences exist in order to restore the balance between the rights of the owner
of copyright and the rights of society at large.”10
A very powerful provision in most legislations is the permission to make
“private copies”, digital and analog ones, in small numbers, but they are
limited to non-commercial and non-public use, and passing on to a third party
is also excluded.11 As Ubu is an online archive that makes all of its records
publicly accessible and, not least, also provides templates for further
copying, it exceeds the notion of a “private copy” by far. Regarding further
fair use provisions, the four factors that are considered in a decision-making
process in US copyright provisions, for instance, refer to: 1) the purpose and
character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or
is for non-profit educational purposes; 2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the
copyrighted work as a whole; and 4) the effect of the use upon the potential
market for the value of the copyrighted work (US Copyright Act, 1976, 17 USC.
§107, online, n.pag.). Applying these fair use provisions to Ubu, one might
consider that the main purposes of the archive relate to education and
research, that it is by its very nature non-commercial, and it largely does
not collide with any third party business interests as most of the material is
not commercially available. However, proving this in detail would be quite an
endeavor. And what complicates matters even more is that the archival material
largely consists of original works of art, which are subject to strict
copyright law protection, that all the works have been copied without any
transformative or commenting intention, and last but not least, that the
aspect of the appropriateness of the amount of used material becomes absurd
with reference to an archive whose quality largely depends on
comprehensiveness: the more the merrier. As Simon Stokes points out, legally
binding decisions can only be made on a case-by-case basis, which is why it is
difficult to make a general evaluation of Ubu’s legal situation.12 The ethical
defense tends to induce the cultural value of the archive as a whole and its
invaluable contribution to cultural memory, while the legal situation does not
consider the value of the project as a whole and necessitates breaking it down
into all the individual items within the collection.
This very brief, when not abridged discussion of the possibilities of fair use
already demonstrates how complex it would be to apply them to Ubu. How
pointless it would be to attempt a serious legal discussion for such a
privately run archive becomes even clearer when looking at the problems public
libraries and archives have to face. While in theory such official
institutions may even have a public mission to collect, preserve, and archive
digital material, in practice, copyright law largely prevents the execution of
this task, as Steinhauer explains.13 The legal expert introduces the example
of the German National Library, which was assigned the task since 2006 to make
back-up copies of all websites published within the .de sublevel domain, but
it turned out to be illegal.14 Identifying a deficiently legal situation when
it comes to collecting, archiving, and providing access to digital cultural
goods, Steinhauer even speaks of a “legal obligation to amnesia”.15 And it is
particularly striking that, from a legal perspective, the collecting of
digitalia is more strictly regulated than the collecting of books, for
example, where the property status of the material object comes into play.
Given the imbalance between cultural requirements, copyright law, and the
technical possibilities, it is not surprising that private initiatives are
being founded with the aim to collect and preserve cultural memory. These
initiatives make use of the affordability and availability of digital
technology and its infrastructures, and they take responsibility for the
preservation of cultural goods by simply ignoring copyright induced
restrictions, i.e. opposing the insatiable hunger of the IP regime for
Ubu was presented and discussed in Athens at an event titled _Shadow
Libraries: UbuWeb in Athens_ , thereby making clear reference to the ecosystem
of shadow libraries. A library, in general, is an institution that collects,
orders, and makes published information available while taking into account
archival, economic, and synoptic aspects. A shadow library does exactly the
same thing, but its mission is not an official one. Usually, the
infrastructure of shadow libraries is conceived, built, and run by a private
initiative, an individual, or a small group of people, who often prefer to
remain anonymous for obvious reasons. In terms of the media content provided,
most shadow libraries are peer-produced in the sense that they are based on
the contributions of a community of supporters, sometimes referred to as
“amateur librarians”. The two key attributes of any proper library, according
to Amsterdam-based media scholar Bodo Balazs, are the catalog and the
community: “The catalogue does not just organize the knowledge stored in the
collection; it is not just a tool of searching and browsing. It is a critical
component in the organisation of the community of librarians who preserve and
nourish the collection.”16 What is specific about shadow libraries, however,
is the fact that they make available anything their contributors consider to
be relevant—regardless of its legal status. That is to say, shadow libraries
also provide unauthorized access to copyrighted publications, and they make
the material available for download without charge and without any other
restrictions. And because there is a whole network of shadow libraries whose
mission is “to remove all barriers in the way of science,”17 experts speak of
an ecosystem fostering free and universal access to knowledge.
The notion of the shadow library enjoyed popularity in the early 2000s when
the wide availability of digital networked media contributed to the emergence
of large-scale repositories of scientific materials, the most famous one
having been Gigapedia, which later transformed into library.nu. This project
was famous for hosting approximately 400,000 (scientific) books and journal
articles but had to be shut down in 2012 as a consequence of a series of
injunctions from powerful publishing houses. The now leading shadow library in
the field, Library Genesis (LibGen), can be considered as its even more
influential successor. As of November 2016 the database contained 25 million
documents (42 terabytes), of which 2.1 million were books, with digital copies
of scientiﬁc articles published in 27,134 journals by 1342 publishers.18 The
large majority of the digital material is of scientific and educational nature
(95%), while only 5% serves recreational purposes.19 The repository is based
on various ways of crowd-sourcing, i.e. social and technical forms of
accessing and sharing academic publications. Despite a number of legal cases
and court orders, the site is still available under various and changing
The related project Sci-Hub is an online service that processes requests for
pay-walled articles by providing systematic, automized, but unauthorized
backdoor access to proprietary scholarly journal databases. Users requesting
papers not present in LibGen are advised to download them through Sci-Hub; the
respective PDF ﬁles are served to users and automatically added to LibGen (if
not already present). According to _Nature_ magazine, Sci-Hub hosts around 60
million academic papers and was able to serve 75 million downloads in 2016. On
a daily basis 70,000 users access approximately 200,000 articles.
The founder of the meta library Sci-Hub is Kazakh programmer Alexandra
Elbakyan, who has been sued by large publishing houses and was convicted twice
to pay almost 20 million US$ in compensation for the losses her activities
allegedly have caused, which is why she had to go underground in Russia. For
illegally leaking millions of documents the _New York Times_ compared her to
Edward Snowden in 2016: “While she didn’t reveal state secrets, she took a
stand for the public’s right to know by providing free online access to just
about every scientific paper ever published, ranging from acoustics to
zymology.” 21 In the same year the prestigious _Nature_ magazine elected her
as one of the ten most influential people in science. 22 Unlike other
persecuted people, she went on the offensive and started to explain her
actions and motives in court documents and blog posts. Sci-Hub encourages new
ways of distributing knowledge, beyond any commercial interests. It provides a
radically open infrastructure thus creating an inviting atmosphere. “It is a
knowledge infrastructure that can be freely accessed, used and built upon by
As both projects LibGen and Sci-Hub are based in post-Soviet countries, Balazs
reconstructed the history and spirit of Russian reading culture and brings
them into connection.24 Interestingly, the author also establishes a
connection to the Kolhoz (Russian: колхо́з), an early Soviet collective farm
model that was self-governing, community-owned, and a collaborative
enterprise, which he considers to be a major inspiration for the digital
librarians. He also identifies parallels between this Kolhoz model and the
notion of the “commons”—a concept that will be discussed in more detail with
regards to shadow libraries further below.
According to Balazs, these sorts of libraries and collections are part of the
Guerilla Open Access movement (GOA) and thus practical manifestations of Aaron
Swartz’s “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”.25 In this manifesto the American
hacker and activist pointed out the flaws of open access politics and aimed at
recruiting supporters for the idea of “radical” open access. Radical in this
context means to completely ignore copyright and simply make as much
information available as possible. “Information is power” is how the manifesto
begins. Basically, it addresses the—what he calls—“privileged”, in the sense
that they do have access to information as academic staff or librarians, and
he calls on their support for building a system of freely available
information by using their privilege, downloading and making information
available. Swartz and Elbakyan both have become the “iconic leaders”26 of a
global movement that fights for scientific knowledge to be(come) freely
accessible and whose protagonists usually prefer to operate unrecognized.
While their particular projects may be of a more or less temporary nature, the
discursive value of the work of the “amateur librarians” and their projects
will have a lasting impact on the development of access politics.
_Cultural and Knowledge Commons_
The above discussion illustrates that the phenomenon of shadow libraries
cannot be reduced to its copyright infringing aspects. It needs to be
contextualized within a larger sociopolitical debate that situates the demand
for free and unrestricted access to knowledge within the struggle against the
all-co-opting logic of capital, which currently aims to economize all aspects
In his analysis of the Russian shadow libraries Balazs has drawn a parallel to
the commons as an alternative mode of ownership and a collective way of
dealing with resources. The growing interest in the discourses around the
commons demonstrates the urgency and timeliness of this concept. The
structural definition of the commons conceived by political economist Massimo
de Angelis allows for its application in diverse fields: “Commons are social
systems in which resources are pooled by a community of people who also govern
these resources to guarantee the latter’s sustainability (if they are natural
resources) and the reproduction of the community. These people engage in
‘commoning,’ that is a form of social labour that bears a direct relation to
the needs of the people, or the commoners”.27 While the model originates in
historical ways of sharing natural resources, it has gained new momentum in
relation to very different resources, thus constituting a third paradigm of
production—beyond state and private—however, with all commoning activities
today still being embedded in the surrounding economic system.
As a reason for the newly aroused interest in the commons, de Angelis provides
the crisis of global capital, which has maneuvered itself into a systemic
impasse. While constantly expanding through its inherent logic of growth and
accumulation, it is the very same logic that destroys the two systems capital
relies on: non-market-shaped social reproduction and the ecological system.
Within this scenario de Angelis describes capital as being in need of the
commons as a “fix” for the most urgent systemic failures: “It needs a ‘commons
fix,’ especially in order to deal with the devastation of the social fabric as
a result of the current crisis of reproduction. Since neoliberalism is not
about to give up its management of the world, it will most likely have to ask
the commons to help manage the devastation it creates. And this means: if the
commons are not there, capital will have to promote them somehow.”28
This rather surprising entanglement of capital and the commons, however, is
not the only perspective. Commons, at the same time, have the potential to
create “a social basis for alternative ways of articulating social production,
independent from capital and its prerogatives. Indeed, today it is difficult
to conceive emancipation from capital—and achieving new solutions to the
demands of _buen vivir_ , social and ecological justice—without at the same
time organizing on the terrain of commons, the non-commodified systems of
social production. Commons are not just a ‘third way’ beyond state and market
failures; they are a vehicle for emerging communities of struggle to claim
ownership to their own conditions of life and reproduction.”29 It is their
purpose to satisfy people’s basic needs and empower them by providing access
to alternative means of subsistence. In that sense, commons can be understood
as an _experimental zone_ in which participants can learn to negotiate
responsibilities, social relations, and peer-based means of production.
_Art and Commons_
Projects such as UbuWeb, Monoskop,30 aaaaarg,31 Memory of the World,32 and
0xdb33 vary in size, they have different forms of organization and foci, but
they all care for specific cultural goods and make sure these goods remain
widely accessible—be it digital copies of artworks and original documents,
books and other text formats, videos, film, or sound and music. Unlike the
large shadow libraries introduced above, which aim to provide access to
hundreds of thousands, if not millions of mainly academic papers and books,
thus trying to fully cover the world of scholarly and academic works, the
smaller artist-run projects are of different nature. While UbuWeb’s founder,
for instance, also promotes a generally unrestricted access to cultural goods,
his approach with UbuWeb is to build a curated archive with copies of artworks
that he considers to be relevant for his very context.34 The selection is
based on personal assessment and preference and cared for affectionately.
Despite its comprehensiveness, it still can be considered a “personal website”
on which the artist shares things relevant to him. As such, he is in good
company with similar “artist-run shadow libraries”, which all provide a
technical infrastructure with which they share resources, while the resources
are of specific relevance to their providers.
Just like the large pirate libraries, these artistic archiving and library
practices challenge the notion of culture as private property and remind us
that it is not an unquestionable absolute. As Jonathan Lethem contends,
“[culture] rather is a social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly
revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation.”35 Shadow libraries, in
general, are symptomatic of the cultural battles and absurdities around access
and copyright within an economic logic that artificially tries to limit the
abundance of digital culture, in which sharing does not mean dividing but
rather multiplying. They have become a cultural force, one that can be
represented in Foucauldian terms, as symptomatic of broader power struggles as
well as systemic failures inherent in the cultural formation. As Marczewska
puts it, “Goldsmith moves away from thinking about models of cultural
production in proprietary terms and toward paradigms of creativity based on a
culture of collecting, organizing, curating, and sharing content.”36 And by
doing so, he produces major contradictions, or rather he allows the already
existing contradictions to come to light. The artistic archives and libraries
are precarious in terms of their legal status, while it is exactly due to
their disregard of copyright that cultural resources could be built that
exceed the relevance of most official archives that are bound to abide the
law. In fact, there are no comparable official resources, which is why the
function of these projects is at least twofold: education and preservation.37
Maybe UbuWeb and the other, smaller or larger, shadow libraries do not qualify
as commons in the strict sense of involving not only a non-market exchange of
themselves. This would require collective, formalized, and transparent types
of organization. Furthermore, most of the digital items they circulate are
privately owned and therefore cannot simply be transferred to become commons
resources. These projects, in many respects, are in a preliminary stage by
pointing to the _ideal of culture as a commons_. By providing access to
cultural goods and knowledge that would otherwise not be available at all or
inaccessible for large parts of the general public, they might even fulfill
the function of a “commons fix”, to a certain degree, but at the same time
they are the experimental zone needed to unlearn copyright and relearn new
ways of cultural production and dissemination beyond the property regime. In
any case, they can function as perfect entry points for the discussion and
investigation of the transformative force art can have within the current
global neoliberal knowledge society.
_Top Tens—Showcasing the Copy as an Aesthetic and Political Statement_
The exhibition _Top Tens_ provided an experimental setting to explore the
possibilities of translating the abundance of a digital archive into a “real
space”, by presenting one hundred artworks from the Ubu archive. 38 Although
all works were properly attributed in the exhibition, the artists whose works
were shown neither had a say about their participation in the exhibition nor
about the display formats. Tolerating the presence of a work in the archive is
one thing; tolerating its display in such circumstances is something else,
which might even touch upon moral rights and the integrity of the work.
However, the exhibition was not so much about the individual works on display
but the archiving condition they are subject to. So the discussion here has
nothing to do the abiding art theory question of original and copy.
Marginally, it is about the question of high-quality versus low-quality
copies. In reproducible media the value of an artwork cannot be based on its
originality any longer—the core criterion for sales and market value. This is
why many artists use the trick of high-resolution and limited edition, a kind
of distributed originality status for several authorized objects, which all
are not 100 percent original but still a bit more original than an arbitrary
unlimited edition. Leaving this whole discussion aside was a clear indication
that something else was at stake. The conceptual statement made by the
exhibition and its makers foregrounded the nature of the shadow library, which
visitors were able to experience when entering the gallery space. Instead of
viewing the artworks in the usual way—online—they had the opportunity to
physically immerse themselves in the cultural condition of proliferated acts
of copying, something that “affords their reconceptualization as a hybrid
creative-critical tool and an influential aesthetic category.”39
Appropriation and copying as longstanding methods of subversive artistic
production, where the reuse of existing material serves as a tool for
commentary, social critique, and a means of making a political statement, has
expanded here to the art of exhibition-making. The individual works serve to
illustrate a curatorial concept, thus radically shifting the avant-garde
gesture which copying used to be in the twentieth century, to breathe new life
in the “culture of collecting, organizing, curating, and sharing content.”
Organizing this conceptually concise exhibition was a brave and bold statement
by the art institution: The Onassis Cultural Centre, one of Athens’ most
prestigious cultural institutions, dared to adopt a resolutely political
stance for a—at least in juridical terms—questionable project, as Ubu lives
from the persistent denial of copyright. Neglecting the concerns of the
individual authors and artists for a moment was a necessary precondition in
order to make space for rethinking the future of cultural production.
Special thanks to Eric Steinhauer and all the artists and amateur librarians
who are taking care of our cultural memory.
1 Festival program online: Onassis Cultural Centre, “Shadow Libraries: UbuWeb
in Athens,” (accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
2 _UbuWeb_ is a massive online archive of avant-garde art created over the
last two decades by New York-based artist and writer Kenneth Goldsmith.
Website of the archive: (accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
3 Kaja Marczewska, _This Is Not a Copy. Writing at the Iterative Turn_ (New
York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), 22.
4 For further reading: Kenneth Goldsmith, _Uncreative Writing: Managing
Language in the Digital Age_ (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
5 Many works in the archive stem from the pre-digital era, and there is no
precise knowledge of the sources where Ubu obtains its material, but it is
known that Goldsmith also digitizes a lot of material himself.
6 In German copyright law, for example, §17 and §19a grant the exclusive right
to reproduce, distribute, and make available online to the author. See also: (accessed on Sept. 30,
7 Eric Steinhauer, “Rechtspflicht zur Amnesie: Digitale Inhalte, Archive und
Urheberrecht,” _iRightsInfo_ (2013),
(accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
8 In particularly severe cases of copyright infringement also state
prosecutors can become active, which in practice, however, remains the
exception. The circumstances in which criminal law must be applied are
described in §109 of German copyright law.
9 See, for example, “Shadow Libraries” for a video interview with Kenneth
10 Paul Torremans, _Intellectual Property Law_ (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2010), 265.
11 See also §53 para. 1–3 of the German Act on Copyright and Related Rights
(UrhG), §42 para. 4 in the Austrian UrhG, and Article 19 of Swiss Copyright
12 Simon Stokes, _Art & Copyright_ (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2003).
13 Steinhauer, “Rechtspflicht zur Amnesie”.
14 This discrepancy between a state mandate for cultural preservation and
copyright law has only been fixed in 2018 with the introduction of a special
law, §16a DNBG.
15 Steinhauer, “Rechtspflicht zur Amnesie”.
16 Bodo Balazs, “The Genesis of Library Genesis: The Birth of a Global
Scholarly Shadow Library,” Nov. 4, 2014, _SSRN_ , , (accessed on
Sept. 30, 2018).
17 Motto of Sci-Hub: “Sci-Hub,” _Wikipedia_ ,
/Sci-Hub> (accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
18 Guillaume Cabanac, “Bibliogifts in LibGen? A study of a text-sharing
platform driven by biblioleaks and crowdsourcing,” _Journal of the Association
for Information Science and Technology_ , 67, 4 (2016): 874–884.
20 The current address is (accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
21 Kate Murphy, “Should All Research Papers Be Free?” _New York Times Sunday
Review_ , Mar. 12, 2016,
/should-all-research-papers-be-free.html> (accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
22 Richard Van Noorden, “Nature’s 10,” _Nature_ , Dec. 19, 2016, (accessed on Sept. 30,
23 Bodo Balazs, “Pirates in the library – an inquiry into the guerilla open
access movement,” paper for the 8th Annual Workshop of the International
Society for the History and Theory of Intellectual Property, CREATe,
University of Glasgow, UK, July 6–8, 2016. Online available at: https
(accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
24 Balazs, “The Genesis of Library Genesis”.
25 Aaron Swartz, “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” _Internet Archive_ , July
(accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
26 Balazs, “Pirates in the library”.
27 Massimo De Angelis, “Economy, Capital and the Commons,” in: _Art,
Production and the Subject in the 21st Century_ , eds. Angela Dimitrakaki and
Kirsten Lloyd (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), 201.
28 Ibid., 211.
30 See: (accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
31 Accessible with invitation. See:
[https://aaaaarg.fail/](https://aaaaarg.fail) (accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
32 See: (accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
33 See: (accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
34 Kenneth Goldsmith in conversation with Cornelia Sollfrank, _The Poetry of
Archiving_ , 2013, (accessed on Sept. 30, 2018).
35 Jonathan Lethem, _The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc._ (London:
Vintage, 2012), 101.
36 Marczewska, _This Is Not a Copy_ , 2.
37 The research project _Creating Commons_ , based at Zurich University of the
Arts, is dedicated to the potential of art projects for the creation of
commons: “creating commons,” (accessed on
Sept. 30, 2018).
38 One of Ubu’s features online has been the “top ten”, the idea to invite
guests to pick their ten favorite works from the archive and thus introduce a
mix between chance operation and subjectivity in order to reveal hidden
treasures. The curators of the festival in Athens, Ilan Manouach and Kenneth
Goldsmith, decided to elevate this principle to the curatorial concept of the
exhibition and invited ten guests to select their ten favorite works. The
Athens-based curator Elpida Karaba was commissioned to work on an adequate
concept for the realization, which turned out to be a huge black box divided
into ten small cubicles with monitors and seating areas, supplemented by a
large wall projection illuminating the whole space.
39 Marczewska, _This Is Not a Copy_ , 7.
This text is under a _Creative Commons_ license: CC BY NC SA 3.0 Austria