Graziano, Mars & Medak
Learning from #Syllabus






The syllabus is the manifesto of the 21st century.
—Sean Dockray and Benjamin Forster1
#Syllabus Struggles
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
hashtag #FergusonSyllabus.
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, ‘’, 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,
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,
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
local events.
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,



#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,



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,
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),



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,
24 Max Chafkin, ‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course’,
FastCompany, 14 November 2013,
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,
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 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, ‘’, 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,
Chatelain, Marcia. ‘How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson’, The Atlantic, 25 August
_____. ‘Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus’, Dissent Magazine, 28 November 2014,
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. ‘’, 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:
Autonomedia, 2013.
Heidebrink-Bruno, Adam. ‘Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture’, Hybrid
Pedagogy, 28 August 2014,
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),
Leckart, Steven. ‘The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever’, Wired,
20 March 2012,
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,
Shirky, Clay. ‘Ontology Is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags’, 2005,
‘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,
‘Trump 101’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 June 2016,
‘Wages for Housework: Pamphlets – Flyers – Photographs,’ MayDay Rooms,
Williamson, Ben. ‘Number Crunching: Transforming Higher Education into “Performance Data”’,
Medium, 16 August 2018,

There Is Something Political in the City Air

What, How & for Whom / WHW

“There is something political in the city air”*

The curatorial collective What,
How & for Whom / WHW, based
in Zagreb and Berlin, examine
the interconnections between
contemporary art and political and
social strata, including the role of art
institutions in contemporary society.
In the present essay, their discussion
of recent projects they curated
highlights the struggle for access to
knowledge and the free distribution
of information, which in Croatia also
means confronting the pressures
of censorship and revisionism
in the writing of history and the
construction of the future.

Contemporary art’s attempts to come to terms with its evasions in delivering on the promise of its own intrinsic capacity to propose alternatives, and
to do better in the constant game of staying ahead of institutional closures
and marketization, are related to a broader malady in leftist politics. The
crisis of organizational models and modes of political action feels especially acute nowadays, after the latest waves of massive political mobilization
and upheaval embodied in such movements as the Arab Spring and Occupy and the widespread social protests in Southern Europe against austerity
measures – and the failure of these movements to bring about structural
changes. As we witnessed in the dramatic events that unfolded through the
spring and summer of 2015, even in Greece, where Syriza was brought to
power, the people’s will behind newly elected governments proved insufficient to change the course of austerity politics in Europe. Simultaneously,
a series of conditional gains and effective defeats gave rise to the alarming
ascent of radical right-wing populism, against which the left has failed to
provide any real vision or driving force.
Both the practice of political articulation and the political practices of
art have been affected by the hollowing and disabling of democracy related
to the ascendant hegemony of the neoliberal rationale that shapes every
domain of our lives in accordance with a specific image of economics,1
as well as the problematic “embrace of localism and autonomy by much
of the left as the pure strategy”2 and the left’s inability to destabilize the
dominant world-view and reclaim the future.3 Consequently, art practices
increasingly venture into novel modes of operation that seek to “expand
our collective imagination beyond what capitalism allows”.4 They not only
point to the problems but address them head on. By negotiating art’s autonomy and impact on the social, and by conceptualizing the whole edifice
of art as a social symptom, such practices attempt to do more than simply
squeeze novel ideas into exhausted artistic formats and endow them with
political content that produces “marks of distinction”,5 which capital then
exploits for the enhancement of its own reproduction.
The two projects visited in this text both work toward building truly
accessible public spaces. Public Library, launched by Marcell Mars and
Tomislav Medak in 2012, is an ongoing media and social project based on
ideas from the open-source software movement, while Autonomy Cube, by
artist Trevor Paglen and the hacker and computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum, centres on anonymized internet usage in the post–Edward

David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, Verso, London and New York, 2012, p. 117.
See Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Zone books,
New York, 2015.
Harvey, Rebel Cities, p. 83.
See Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World
Without Work, Verso, London and New York, 2015.
Ibid., p. 495.
See Harvey, Rebel Cities, especially pp. 103–109.

“There is something political in the city air”


Snowden world of unprecedented institutionalized surveillance. Both projects operate in tacit alliance with art institutions that more often than not
are suffering from a kind of “mission drift” under pressure to align their
practices and structures with the profit sector, a situation that in recent
decades has gradually become the new norm.6 By working within and with
art institutions, both Public Library and Autonomy Cube induce the institutions to return to their initial mission of creating new common spaces
of socialization and political action. The projects develop counter-publics
and work with infrastructures, in the sense proposed by Keller Easterling:
not just physical networks but shared standards and ideas that constitute
points of contact and access between people and thus rule, govern, and
control the spaces in which we live.7
By building a repository of digitized books, and enabling others to do this
as well, Public Library promotes the idea of the library as a truly public institution that offers universal access to knowledge, which “together with
free public education, a free public healthcare, the scientific method, the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Wikipedia, and free software,
among others – we, the people, are most proud of ”, as the authors of the
project have said.8 Public Library develops devices for the free sharing of
books, but it also functions as a platform for advocating social solidarity
in free access to knowledge. By ignoring and avoiding the restrictive legal
regime for intellectual property, which was brought about by decades of
neoliberalism, as well as the privatization or closure of public institutions,
spatial controls, policing, and surveillance – all of which disable or restrict
possibilities for building new social relations and a new commons – Public
Library can be seen as part of the broader movement to resist neoliberal
austerity politics and the commodification of knowledge and education
and to appropriate public spaces and public goods for common purposes.
While Public Library is fully engaged with the movement to oppose the
copyright regime – which developed as a kind of rent for expropriating the
commons and reintroducing an artificial scarcity of cognitive goods that
could be reproduced virtually for free – the project is not under the spell of
digital fetishism, which until fairly recently celebrated a new digital commons as a non-frictional space of smooth collaboration where a new political and economic autonomy would be forged that would spill over and
undermine the real economy and permeate all spheres of life.9 As Matteo
Pasquinelli argues in his critique of “digitalism” and its celebration of the

See Brown, Undoing the Demos.
Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, Verso, London and
New York, 2014.
Marcell Mars, Manar Zarroug, and Tomislav Medak, “Public Library”, in Public Library,
ed. Marcell Mars, Tomislav Medak, and What, How & for Whom / WHW, exh. publication, What, How & for Whom / WHW and Multimedia Institute, Zagreb, 2015, p. 78.
See Matteo Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, and Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2008.


What, How & for Whom / WHW

virtues of the information economy with no concern about the material
basis of production, the information economy is a parasite on the material
economy and therefore “an accurate understanding of the common must
be always interlinked with the real physical forces producing it and the material economy surrounding it.”10
Public Library emancipates books from the restrictive copyright regime
and participates in the exchange of information enabled by digital technology, but it also acknowledges the labour and energy that make this possible. There is labour that goes into the cataloguing of the books, and labour
that goes into scanning them before they can be brought into the digital
realm of free reproduction, just as there are the ingenuity and labour of
the engineers who developed a special scanner that makes it easier to scan
books; also, the scanner needs to be installed, maintained, and fed books
over hours of work. This is where the institutional space of art comes in
handy by supporting the material production central to the Public Library
endeavour. But the scanner itself does not need to be visible. In 2014, at
the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, we curated the
exhibition Really Useful Knowledge, which dealt with conflicts triggered by
struggles over access to knowledge and the effects that knowledge, as the
basis of capital reproduction, has on the totality of workers’ lives. In the
exhibition, the production funds allocated to Public Library were used to
build the book scanner at Calafou, an anarchist cooperative outside Barcelona. The books chosen for scanning were relevant to the exhibition’s
themes – methods of reciprocal learning and teaching, forms of social and
political organization, the history of the Spanish Civil War, etc. – and after
being scanned, they were uploaded to the Public Library website. All that
was visible in the exhibition itself was a kind of index card or business card
with a URL link to the Public Library website and a short statement (fig. 1):
A public library is:
• free access to books for every member of society
• library catalog
• librarian
With books ready to be shared, meticulously cataloged, everyone is a
librarian. When everyone is librarian, the library is everywhere.11
Public Library’s alliance with art institutions serves to strengthen the
cultural capital both for the general demand to free books from copyright
restrictions on cultural goods and for the project itself – such cultural capital could be useful in a potential lawsuit. Simultaneously, the presence and
realization of the Public Library project within an exhibition enlists the host
institution as part of the movement and exerts influence on it by taking
the museum’s public mission seriously and extending it into a grey zone of

Ibid., p. 29.
Mars, Zarroug, and Medak, “Public Library”, p. 85.

“There is something political in the city air”


questionable legality. The defence of the project becomes possible by making the traditional claim of the “autonomy” of art, which is not supposed
to assert any power beyond the museum walls. By taking art’s autonomy
at its word, and by testing the truth of the liberal-democratic claim that
the field of art is a field of unlimited freedom, Public Library engages in a
kind of “overidentification” game, or what Keller Easterling, writing about
the expanded activist repertoire in infrastructure space, calls “exaggerated
compliance”.12 Should the need arise, as in the case of a potential lawsuit
against the project, claims of autonomy and artistic freedom create a protective shroud of untouchability. And in this game of liberating books from
the parochial capitalist imagination that restricts their free circulation, the
institution becomes a complicit partner. The long-acknowledged insight
that institutions embrace and co-opt critique is, in this particular case, a
win-win situation, as Public Library uses the public status of the museum
as a springboard to establish the basic message of free access and the free
circulation of books and knowledge as common sense, while the museum
performs its mission of bringing knowledge to the public and supporting
creativity, in this case the reworking, rebuilding and reuse of technology
for the common good. The fact that the institution is not naive but complicit produces a synergy that enhances potentialities for influencing and
permeating the public sphere. The gesture of not exhibiting the scanner in
the museum has, among other things, a practical purpose, as more books
would be scanned voluntarily by the members of the anarchist commune
in Calafou than would be by the overworked museum staff, and employing
somebody to do this during the exhibition would be too expensive (and the
mantra of cuts, cuts, cuts would render negotiation futile). If there is a flirtatious nod to the strategic game of not exposing too much, it is directed less
toward the watchful eyes of the copyright police than toward the exhibition
regime of contemporary art group shows in which works compete for attention, the biggest scarcity of all. Public Library flatly rejects identification
with the object “our beloved bookscanner” (as the scanner is described on
the project website13), although it is an attractive object that could easily
be featured as a sculpture within the exhibition. But its efficacy and use
come first, as is also true of the enigmatic business card–like leaflet, which
attracts people to visit the Public Library website and use books, not only to
read them but also to add books to the library: doing this in the privacy of
one’s home on one’s own computer is certainly more effective than doing
it on a computer provided and displayed in the exhibition among the other
art objects, films, installations, texts, shops, cafés, corridors, exhibition
halls, elevators, signs, and crowds in a museum like Reina Sofia.
For the exhibition to include a scanner that was unlikely to be used or
a computer monitor that showed the website from which books might be

Easterling, Extrastatecraft, p. 492.
See (accessed July 4, 2016).


What, How & for Whom / WHW

downloaded, but probably not read, would be the embodiment of what
philosopher Robert Pfaller calls “interpassivity”, the appearance of activity or a stand-in for it that in fact replaces any genuine engagement.14 For
Pfaller, interpassivity designates a flight from engagement, a misplaced libidinal investment that under the mask of enjoyment hides aversion to an
activity that one is supposed to enjoy, or more precisely: “Interpassivity is
the creation of a compromise between cultural interests and latent cultural
aversion.”15 Pfaller’s examples of participation in an enjoyable process that
is actually loathed include book collecting and the frantic photocopying of
articles in libraries (his book was originally published in 2002, when photocopying had not yet been completely replaced by downloading, bookmarking, etc.).16 But he also discusses contemporary art exhibitions as sites of
interpassivity, with their overabundance of objects and time-based works
that require time that nobody has, and with the figure of the curator on
whom enjoyment is displaced – the latter, he says, is a good example of
“delegated enjoyment”. By not providing the exhibition with a computer
from which books can be downloaded, the project ensures that books are
seen as vehicles of knowledge acquired by reading and not as immaterial
capital to be frantically exchanged; the undeniable pleasure of downloading and hoarding books is, after all, just one step removed from the playground of interpassivity that the exhibition site (also) is.
But Public Library is hardly making a moralistic statement about the
virtues of reading, nor does it believe that ignorance (such as could be
overcome by reading the library’s books) is the only obstacle that stands
in the way of ultimate emancipation. Rather, the project engages with, and
contributes to, the social practice that David Harvey calls “commoning”:
“an unstable and malleable social relation between a particular self-defined social group and those aspects of its actually existing or yet-to-becreated social and/or physical environment deemed crucial to its life and
livelihood”.17 Public Library works on the basis of commoning and tries to
enlist others to join it, which adds a distinctly political dimension to the
sabotage of intellectual property revenues and capital accumulation.
The political dimension of Public Library and the effort to form and
publicize the movement were expressed more explicitly in the Public Li14


Robert Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners, Verso, London and New York, 2014.
Ibid., p. 76.
Pfaller’s book, which first appeared in German, was published in English only in 2014.
His ideas have gained greater relevance over time, not only as the shortcomings of the
immensely popular social media activism became apparent – where, as many critics
have noted, participation in political organizing and the articulation of political tasks
and agendas are often replaced by a click on an icon – but also because of Pfaller’s
broader argument about the self-deception at play in interpassivity and its role in eliciting enjoyment from austerity measures and other calamities imposed on the welfare
state by the neoliberal regime, which since early 2000 has exceeded even the most sober (and pessimistic) expectations.
Ibid., p. 73.

“There is something political in the city air”


brary exhibition in 2015 at Gallery Nova in Zagreb, where we have been
directing the programme since 2003. If the Public Library project was not
such an eminently collective practice that pays no heed to the author function, the Gallery Nova show might be considered something like a solo exhibition. As it was realized, the project again used art as an infrastructure
and resource to promote the movement of freeing books from copyright
restrictions while collecting legitimization points from the art world as enhanced cultural capital that could serve as armour against future attacks
by the defenders of the holy scripture of copyright laws. But here the more
important tactic was to show the movement as an army of many and to
strengthen it through self-presentation. The exhibition presented Public
Library as a collection of collections, and the repertory form (used in archive science to describe a collection) was taken as the basic narrative procedure. It mobilized and activated several archives and open digital repositories, such as MayDay Rooms from London, The Ignorant Schoolmaster and
His Committees from Belgrade, Library Genesis and, Catalogue
of Free Books, (Digitized) Praxis, the digitized work of the Midnight Notes
Collective, and, with special emphasis on activating the digital
repositories UbuWeb and Monoskop. Not only did the exhibition attempt to
enlist the gallery audience but, equally important, the project was testing
its own strength in building, articulating, announcing, and proposing, or
speculating on, a broader movement to oppose the copyright of cultural
goods within and adjacent to the art field.
Presenting such a movement in an art institution changes one of the
basic tenets of art, and for an art institution the project’s main allure probably lies in this kind of expansion of the art field. A shared politics is welcome, but nothing makes an art institution so happy as the sense of purpose that a project like Public Library can endow it with. (This, of course,
comes with its own irony, for while art institutions nowadays compete for
projects that show emphatically how obsolete the aesthetic regime of art is,
they continue to base their claims of social influence on knowledge gained
through some form of aesthetic appreciation, however they go about explaining and justifying it.) At the same time, Public Library’s nonchalance
about institutional maladies and anxieties provides a homeopathic medicine whose effect is sometimes so strong that discussion about placebos
becomes, at least temporarily, beside the point. One occasion when Public
Library’s roving of the political terrain became blatantly direct was the exhibition Written-off: On the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Operation
Storm, which we organized in the summer of 2015 at Gallery Nova (figs.
The exhibition/action Written-off was based on data from Ante Lesaja’s
extensive research on “library purification”, which he published in his book
Knjigocid: Uništavanje knjige u Hrvatskoj 1990-ih (Libricide: The Destruction
of Books in Croatia in the 1990s).18 People were invited to bring in copies of

Ante Lesaja, Knjigocid: Uništavanje knjige u Hrvatskoj 1990-ih, Profil and Srbsko narodno


What, How & for Whom / WHW

books that had been removed from Croatian public libraries in the 1990s.
The books were scanned and deposited in a digital archive; they then became available on a website established especially for the project. In Croatia during the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of books were removed from
schools and factories, from public, specialized, and private libraries, from
former Yugoslav People’s Army centres, socio-political organizations, and
elsewhere because of their ideologically inappropriate content, the alphabet they used (Serbian Cyrillic), or the ethnic or political background of the
authors. The books were mostly thrown into rubbish bins, discarded on
the street, destroyed, or recycled. What Lesaja’s research clearly shows is
that the destruction of the books – as well as the destruction of monuments
to the People’s Liberation War (World War II) – was not the result of individuals running amok, as official accounts preach, but a deliberate and systematic action that symbolically summarizes the dominant politics of the
1990s, in which war, rampant nationalism, and phrases about democracy
and sovereignty were used as a rhetorical cloak to cover the nakedness of
the capitalist counter-revolution and criminal processes of dispossession.
Written-off: On the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Operation Storm
set up scanners in the gallery, initiated a call for collecting and scanning
books that had been expunged from public institutions in the 1990s, and
outlined the criteria for the collection, which corresponded to the basic
domains in which the destruction of the books, as a form of censorship,
was originally implemented: books written in the Cyrillic alphabet or in
Serbian regardless of the alphabet; books forming a corpus of knowledge
about communism, especially Yugoslav communism, Yugoslav socialism,
and the history of the workers’ struggle; and books presenting the anti-Fascist and revolutionary character of the People’s Liberation Struggle during
World War II.
The exhibition/action was called Written-off because the removal and
destruction of the books were often presented as a legitimate procedure
of library maintenance, thus masking the fact that these books were unwanted, ideologically unacceptable, dangerous, harmful, unnecessary, etc.
Written-off unequivocally placed “book destruction” in the social context
of the period, when the destruction of “unwanted” monuments and books
was happening alongside the destruction of homes and the killing of “unwanted” citizens, outside of and prior to war operations. For this reason,
the exhibition was dedicated to the twentieth anniversary of Operation
Storm, the final military/police operation in what is called, locally, the
Croatian Homeland War.19
The exhibition was intended as a concrete intervention against a political logic that resulted in mass exile and killing, the history of which is
glossed over and critical discussion silenced, and also against the official

vijeće, Zagreb, 2012.
Known internationally as the Croatian War of Independence, the war was fought between Croatian forces and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army from 1991 to

“There is something political in the city air”


celebrations of the anniversary, which glorified militarism and proclaimed
the ethical purity of the victory (resulting in the desired ethnic purity of the
As both symbolic intervention and real-life action, then, the exhibition
Written-off took place against a background of suppressed issues relating
to Operation Storm – ethno-nationalism as the flip side of neoliberalism,
justice and the present status of the victims and refugees, and the overall character of the war known officially as the Homeland War, in which
discussions about its prominent traits as a civil war are actively silenced
and increasingly prosecuted. In protest against the official celebrations
and military parades, the exhibition marked the anniversary of Operation
Storm with a collective action that evokes books as symbolic of a “knowledge society” in which knowledge becomes the location of conflictual engagement. It pointed toward the struggle over collective symbolic capital
and collective memory, in which culture as a form of the commons has a
direct bearing on the kind of place we live in. The Public Library project,
however, is engaged not so much with cultural memory and remembrance
as a form of recollection or testimony that might lend political legitimation
to artistic gestures; rather, it engages with history as a construction and
speculative proposition about the future, as Peter Osborne argues in his
polemical hypotheses on the notion of contemporary art that distinguishes
between “contemporary” and “present-day” art: “History is not just a relationship between the present and the past – it is equally about the future.
It is this speculative futural moment that definitively separates the concept
of history from memory.”20 For Public Library, the future that participates
in the construction of history does not yet exist, but it is defined as more
than just a project against the present as reflected in the exclusionary, parochially nationalistic, revisionist and increasingly fascist discursive practices of the Croatian political elites. Rather, the future comes into being as
an active and collective construction based on the emancipatory aspects of
historical experiences as future possibilities.
Although defined as an action, the project is not exultantly enthusiastic
about collectivity or the immediacy and affective affinities of its participants, but rather it transcends its local and transient character by taking
up the broader counter-hegemonic struggle for the mutual management
of joint resources. Its endeavour is not limited to the realm of the political
and ideological but is rooted in the repurposing of technological potentials
from the restrictive capitalist game and the reutilization of the existing infrastructure to build a qualitatively different one. While the culture industry adapts itself to the limited success of measures that are geared toward
preventing the free circulation of information by creating new strategies
for pushing information into a form of property and expropriating value


Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso, London
and New York, 2013, p. 194.


What, How & for Whom / WHW

fig. 1
Marcell Mars, Art as Infrastructure: Public Library, installation
view, Really Useful Knowledge, curated by WHW, Museo
Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2014.
Photo by Joaquin Cortes and Roman Lores / MNCARS.

fig. 2
Public Library, exhibition view, Gallery Nova, Zagreb, 2015.
Photo by Ivan Kuharic.

fig. 3
Written-off: On the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Operation
Storm, exhibition detail, Gallery Nova, Zagreb, 2015.
Photo by Ivan Kuharic.

fig. 4
Written-off: On the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Operation
Storm, exhibition detail, Gallery Nova, Zagreb, 2015.
Photo by Ivan Kuharic.

fig. 5
Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum, Autonomy Cube,
installation view, Really Useful Knowledge, curated by WHW,
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2014.
Photo by Joaquín Cortés and Román Lores / MNCARS.

through the control of metadata (information about information),21 Public Library shifts the focus away from aesthetic intention – from unique,
closed, and discrete works – to a database of works and the metabolism
of the database. It creates values through indexing and connectivity, imagined communities and imaginative dialecticization. The web of interpenetration and determination activated by Public Library creates a pedagogical endeavour that also includes a propagandist thrust, if the notion of
propaganda can be recast in its original meaning as “things that must be
A similar didactic impetus and constructivist praxis is present in the work
Autonomy Cube, which was developed through the combined expertise of
artist and geographer Trevor Paglen and internet security researcher, activist and hacker Jacob Appelbaum. This work, too, we presented in the
Reina Sofia exhibition Really Useful Knowledge, along with Public Library
and other projects that offered a range of strategies and methodologies
through which the artists attempted to think through the disjunction between concrete experience and the abstraction of capital, enlisting pedagogy as a crucial element in organized collective struggles. Autonomy Cube
offers a free, open-access, encrypted internet hotspot that routes internet
traffic over TOR, a volunteer-run global network of servers, relays, and services, which provides anonymous and unsurveilled communication. The
importance of the privacy of the anonymized information that Autonomy
Cube enables and protects is that it prevents so-called traffic analysis – the
tracking, analysis, and theft of metadata for the purpose of anticipating
people’s behaviour and relationships. In the hands of the surveillance
state this data becomes not only a means of steering our tastes, modes of
consumption, and behaviours for the sake of making profit but also, and
more crucially, an effective method and weapon of political control that
can affect political organizing in often still-unforeseeable ways that offer
few reasons for optimism. Visually, Autonomy Cube references minimalist
sculpture (fig. 5) (specifically, Hans Haacke’s seminal piece Condensation
Cube, 1963–1965), but its main creative drive lies in the affirmative salvaging of technologies, infrastructures, and networks that form both the leading organizing principle and the pervasive condition of complex societies,
with the aim of supporting the potentially liberated accumulation of collective knowledge and action. Aesthetic and art-historical references serve
as camouflage or tools for a strategic infiltration that enables expansion of
the movement’s field of influence and the projection of a different (contingent) future. Engagement with historical forms of challenging institutions
becomes the starting point of a poetic praxis that materializes the object of
its striving in the here and now.
Both Public Library and Autonomy Cube build their autonomy on the dedi21

McKenzie Wark, “Metadata Punk”, in Public Library, pp. 113–117 (see n. 9).

“There is something political in the city air”


cation and effort of the collective body, without which they would not
exist, rendering this interdependence not as some consensual idyll of cooperation but as conflicting fields that create further information and experiences. By doing so, they question the traditional edifice of art in a way
that supports Peter Osborne’s claim that art is defined not by its aesthetic
or medium-based status, but by its poetics: “Postconceptual art articulates a post-aesthetic poetics.”22 This means going beyond criticality and
bringing into the world something defined not by its opposition to the real,
but by its creation of the fiction of a shared present, which, for Osborne,
is what makes art truly contemporary. And if projects like these become a
kind of political trophy for art institutions, the side the institutions choose
nevertheless affects the common sense of our future.


Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All, p. 33.


What, How & for Whom / WHW

“There is something political in the city air”


The Indexalist

## The Indexalist

### From Mondotheque


[Matthew Fuller](/wiki/index.php?title=Matthew_Fuller "Matthew Fuller")

I first spoke to the patient in the last week of that August. That evening the
sun was tender in drawing its shadows across the lines of his face. The eyes
gazed softly into a close middle distance, as if composing a line upon a
translucent page hung in the middle of the air, the hands tapping out a stanza
or two of music on legs covered by the brown folds of a towelling dressing
gown. He had the air of someone who had seen something of great amazement but
yet lacked the means to put it into language. As I got to know the patient
over the next few weeks I learned that this was not for the want of effort.

In his youth he had dabbled with the world-speak language Volapük, one
designed to do away with the incompatibility of tongues, to establish a
standard in which scientific intercourse might be conducted with maximum
efficiency and with minimal friction in movement between minds, laboratories
and publications. Latin biological names, the magnificent table of elements,
metric units of measurement, the nomenclature of celestial objects from clouds
to planets, anatomical parts and medical conditions all had their own systems
of naming beyond any specific tongue. This was an attempt to bring reason into
speech and record, but there were other means to do so when reality resisted
these early measures.

The dabbling, he reflected, had become a little more than that. He had
subscribed to journals in the language, he wrote letters to colleagues and
received them in return. A few words of world-speak remained readily on his
tongue, words that he spat out regularly into the yellow-wallpapered lounge of
the sanatorium with a disgust that was lugubriously palpable.

According to my records, and in piecing together the notes of previous
doctors, there was something else however, something more profound that the
language only hinted at. Just as the postal system did not require the
adoption of any language in particular but had its formats that integrated
them into addressee, address line, postal town and country, something that
organised the span of the earth, so there was a sense of the patient as having
sustained an encounter with a fundamental form of organisation that mapped out
his soul. More thrilling than the question of language indeed was that of the
system of organisation upon which linguistic symbols are inscribed. I present
for the reader’s contemplation some statements typical of those he seemed to
mull over.

“The index card system spoke to my soul. Suffice it to say that in its use I
enjoyed the highest form of spiritual pleasure, and organisational efficiency,
a profound flowering of intellect in which every thought moved between its
enunciation, evidence, reference and articulation in a mellifluous flow of
ideation and the gratification of curiosity.” This sense of the soul as a
roving enquiry moving across eras, across forms of knowledge and through the
serried landscapes of the vast planet and cosmos was returned to over and
over, a sense that an inexplicable force was within him yet always escaping
his touch.

“At every reference stood another reference, each more interesting than the
last. Each the apex of a pyramid of further reading, pregnant with the threat
of digression, each a thin high wire which, if not observed might lead the
author into the fall of error, a finding already found against and written
up.” He mentions too, a number of times, the way the furniture seemed to
assist his thoughts - the ease of reference implied by the way in which the
desk aligned with the text resting upon the pages of the off-print, journal,
newspaper, blueprint or book above which further drawers of cards stood ready
in their cabinet. All were integrated into the system. And yet, amidst these
frenetic recollections there was a note of mourning in his contemplative
moods, “The superposition of all planes of enquiry and of thought in one
system repels those for whom such harmonious speed is suspicious.” This
thought was delivered with a stare that was not exactly one of accusation, but
that lingered with the impression that there was a further statement to follow
it, and another, queued up ready to follow.

As I gained the trust of the patient, there was a sense in which he estimated
me as something of a junior collaborator, a clerk to his natural role as
manager. A lucky, if slightly doubtful, young man whom he might mentor into
efficiency and a state of full access to information. For his world, there was
not the corruption and tiredness of the old methods. Ideas moved faster in his
mind than they might now across the world. To possess a register of thoughts
covering a period of some years is to have an asset, the value of which is
almost incalculable. That it can answer any question respecting any thought
about which one has had an enquiry is but the smallest of its merits. More
important is the fact that it continually calls attention to matters requiring
such attention.

Much of his discourse was about the optimum means of arrangement of the
system, there was an art to laying out the cards. As the patient further
explained, to meet the objection that loose cards may easily be mislaid, cards
may be tabbed with numbers from one to ten. When arranged in the drawer, these
tabs proceed from left to right across the drawer and the absence of a single
card can thus easily be detected. The cards are further arranged between
coloured guide cards. As an alternative to tabbed cards, signal flags may be
used. Here, metal clips may be attached to the top end of the card and that
stand out like guides. For use of the system in relation to dates of the
month, the card is printed with the numbers 1 to 31 at the top. The metal clip
is placed as a signal to indicate the card is to receive attention on the
specified day. Within a large organisation a further card can be drawn up to
assign responsibility for processing that date’s cards. There were numerous
means of working the cards, special techniques for integrating them into any
type of research or organisation, means by which indexes operating on indexes
could open mines of information and expand the knowledge and capabilities of

As he pressed me further, I began to experiment with such methods myself by
withdrawing data from the sanatorium’s records and transferring it to cards in
the night. The advantages of the system are overwhelming. Cards, cut to the
right mathematical degree of accuracy, arrayed readily in drawers, set in
cabinets of standard sizes that may be added to at ease, may be apportioned
out amongst any number of enquirers, all of whom may work on them
independently and simultaneously. The bound book, by contrast, may only be
used by one person at a time and that must stay upon a shelf itself referred
to by an index card system. I began to set up a structure of rows of mirrors
on chains and pulleys and a set of levered and hinged mechanical arms to allow
me to open the drawers and to privately consult my files from any location
within the sanatorium. The clarity of the image is however so far too much
effaced by the diffusion of light across the system.

It must further be borne in mind that a system thus capable of indefinite
expansion obviates the necessity for hampering a researcher with furniture or
appliances of a larger size than are immediately required. The continuous and
orderly sequence of the cards may be extended further into the domain of
furniture and to the conduct of business and daily life. Reasoning, reference
and the order of ideas emerging as they embrace and articulate a chaotic world
and then communicate amongst themselves turning the world in turn into
something resembling the process of thought in an endless process of
consulting, rephrasing, adding and sorting.

For the patient, ideas flowed like a force of life, oblivious to any unnatural
limitation. Thought became, with the proper use of the system, part of the
stream of life itself. Thought moved through the cards not simply at the
superficial level of the movement of fingers and the mechanical sliding and
bunching of cards, but at the most profound depths of the movement between
reality and our ideas of it. The organisational grace to be found in
arrangement, classification and indexing still stirred the remnants of his
nervous system until the last day.

Last Revision: 2*08*2016

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