Comments on Cultural Environmentalism

Joe Gratz and Rebecca Tushnet have posted elaborate summaries of the presentations at the fabulous-sounding Cultural Environmentalism at 10 conference held last weekend at Stanford. Links below. Reading them leads me to a new metaphor of my own, which for reasons that should become evident further on, I’ll call the George Carlin Meta-Theory of Intellectual Property: IP is a place for your stuff. More below the jump.

Reading through the linked posts from the conference, two thoughts came to mind:

First, intellectual property theory and scholarship today seems to reverse the “standard” account of political and intellectual hegemony in legal academia. The “progressives” are beholden to utilitarian economic models (20 more years has zero marginal utility to today’s creator!). The “conservatives” appeal to narrative, metaphor, and trope (the romantic author, piracy and theft, and so on). The environmentalism metaphor for conceptualizing international information law and policy issues represents one important attempt to expand and extend the progressive discourse, to use the “romantic author” trope progressively, for example, rather than to preserve or extend the status quo. Feel free to agree or disagree on the prescriptions that come out of this, but I think that the conversation is richer for the development.

Second, and 10 years after the inauguration of “cultural environmentalism,” I don’t think that the metaphor works. I read the blogged summaries of the presentations. I read the colloquies with the commentators. I’ve even read earlier versions of some of the papers. And I can’t help but come away with the sense that this project — the reinjection of social and cultural theory and non-utilitarian economic arguments into progressive readings of intellectual property law and policy — is just now starting to get off the ground. After 10 years. Moreover, it’s starting to get off the ground in a way that seems largely to leave the “environmentalism” metaphor behind. (Of course, having thought this through for the last week or so, I see that Brett has pointed out Frank Pasquale’s interesting analysis — which invokes the environmental metaphor quite nicely!)

Why doesn’t the environmental metaphor have more traction in information policy debates? I think that the reason goes back to Jamie Boyle’s introductory explanation of the initial importance of the metaphor: The “cultural environment” was a rhetorical device, a way to link seemingly disparate debates and to make invisible issues more salient. What the cultural environment didn’t and wasn’t intended to do, at least not on a broad scale, and at least not now, is connect with our everyday and ordinary experience of culture. “Cultural environmentalism” resonates for us because we recall environmentalism as a political movement. “Cultural environmentalism” is a call to arms. Au barricades! But my own mixed metaphors suggest why this hasn’t happened on a broad scale. “Culture” doesn’t resonate for us as “our environment.” Socially constructed it may be, but “the” environment is place and space. Culture, in a very basic and colloquial sense, is stuff. So, as some of the commentary points out, we need more metaphors and narratives and empirics about stuff. If the environmentalist metaphor is ever going to get stronger and take hold, it needs to be connected to stuff. Which leads me to the conclusion, previewed above, that George Carlin may indeed be, as some of us have long suspected, something of an oracle.

Rebecca on the Closing
Joe (liveblogging) on the Closing

Rebecca on Molly Van Houweling
Joe (liveblogging) on Molly Van Houweling
Siva blogs his comments on Molly V.H.

Joe (liveblogging) on Rebecca

Rebecca on Susan Crawford
Joe (liveblogging) on Susan Crawford

Rebecca on Madhavi Sunder
Joe (liveblogging) on Madhavi Sunder

Rebecca on Jamie Boyle and the Introduction
Joe (liveblogging) on Jamie Boyle and the Introduction

(Thanks to Joe and Rebecca! This is a tremendous service.)

3 thoughts on “Comments on Cultural Environmentalism

  1. I agree with all of this.

    You might dig this article, which is forthcoming in Cultural Studies:

    Critical Information Studies: A Bibliographic Manifesto

    New York University – Department of Culture and Communication August 23, 2005

    This paper takes measure of an emerging scholarly field that sits at the intersection of many important areas of study. Critical Information Studies (CIS) considers the ways that culture and information are regulated and their relationship to commerce, creativity, and other human affairs. CIS captures the variety of approaches and bodies of knowledge needed to make sense of interesting, important phenomena such as copyright policy, electronic voting, encryption, the state of libraries, the preservation of ancient cultural traditions, and markets for cultural production. It necessarily stretches to a wide array of scholarly subjects, employs multiple complementary methodologies, and influences conversations far beyond the gates of the university. This field can serve as a model for how engaged, relevant scholarship in other areas might be done. Economists, sociologists, linguists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, communication scholars, lawyers, computer scientists, philosophers, and librarians have all contributed to this field. CIS interrogates the structures, functions, habits, norms, and practices that guide global flows of information and cultural elements. Instead of being concerned merely with one’s right to speak (or sing or publish), CIS asks questions about access, costs, and chilling effects on, within, and among audiences, citizens, emerging cultural creators, indigenous cultural groups, teachers, and students. Central to these issues is the idea of semiotic democracy, the ability of citizens to employ the signs and symbols ubiquitous in their environments in manners that they determine.

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