Defending the Cultural Commons: the Avant-Garde and Information Activism, by Stephen Voyce

Today’s Open Access Week guest post comes from Stephen Voyce, Assistant Professor in the University of Iowa’s English department. It is an excerpt from an essay titled “Toward an Open-Source Poetics: Appropriation, Collaboration, and the Public Domain”, originally published in the journal Criticism (53.3 [Fall 2011]: 407-38). Professor Voyce will be participating in today’s panel discussion on academic publishing and open access. It will be held at 3 pm in room 1117 of the University Capitol Centre, and refreshments will be served. Find more details here about this event and Open Access Week at the University of Iowa. We hope you’ll join us.

Defending the Cultural Commons: the Avant-Garde and Information Activism

Stephen Voyce

In many ways the practices of appropriation and distributed creativity in recent poetry are part of a broader movement to enlarge and protect a public cultural commons. The term commons can refer to natural resources, public spaces, transportation, social institutions, information and research, government infrastructure, and network technologies. Thus, the commons contains material assets (e.g., parks, forests, water), intangible resources (e.g., the public domain, government research), and virtual environments (e.g., public radio, the Internet). A motley array of resources and public spheres converge within its signifying power and receive its protection from collective, democratic control. The radical market exploitation of the commons in recent decades has muddled distinctions between private and public realms of ownership (and since so many of the spaces in which subjects interact are now devoted to consumer practices, there is also a comparable muddling of our roles as citizens and consumers). Moreover, there has been little discussion of the public domain outside the disciplines of law and economics. Jessica Litman observes that, in the legal field, public domain works are often referred to as “unprotectable or uncopyrightable”; not only does this account of the public domain ignore its central role in subsequent literary production, it seems also to confer a peculiar nonstatus on any noncommercial object. We are led to conclude that an object not defined by property lacks proper existence. Since we lack a precise language to describe the commons, it has by default come to denote the residue of property. Responding to this challenge, James Boyle calls for a twenty-first-century information movement akin to the formation of the environmental movement during the 1960s. For this to take place, however, scholars like Boyle and Litman contend that a reinvigorated language of the commons is a necessary precondition if one hopes to mobilize communities to protect it.

The cultural activities of open source programmers and literary organizations like the Poetry Research Bureau, UbuWeb, and Information as Material afford both a theoretical and practical point of departure. Beyond the already multifarious range of meanings we give to the commons, from at least the fourteenth century onward, the term also affords a synonym for community (L. communis). Digital networks create countless possibilities for storing, distributing, and sharing cultural resources. These are the principles upon which networked collectives such as UbuWeb establish affiliations, codevelop their ideas, and present their work. Hence, UbuWeb functions both as a site of shared resources and as a site of community formation, and should be thought of and defended as such. Parks, squares, campuses, recreation centers, and social networking sites historically function as spaces in which communities form and mobilize as political subjects. One must apply this same logic to the public domain.

Next, we should conceive of the commons as a practice—and thus inject a logic of the commons into the fabric of our thoughts and actions. Again, both open source code sharing and UbuWeb’s commons-based poetics are instructive. Theories of authorship often mystify creativity by concealing the collective production of culture and its reliance on past traditions. Critiques of individual creativity appear all the more convincing with reference to contemporary poets, musicians, and authors whose challenge to proprietary definitions of authorship is the very hallmark of their practice.

To this end, the role of the avant-garde in the twenty-first-century is finding renewed purpose. The militaristic origin of the term avant-garde is well known. Renate Poggioli, responding to the legacies of futurism, imagism, and vorticism, argues that the formation of an avant-garde is essentially agonistic: the movement is defined “against something or someone”—and typically the academy or the general public. Although agonism appears within Greek, Christian, and Romantic traditions, “avant-garde agonism” refers to a radical form of opposition, a paradoxical affirmation of “self-sacrifice” by a “collective group” on behalf of the principles it advances. This now canonical definition of modernist experimental practice overshadows the intensely social projects of community building undertaken by artistic communities throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is this social imperative that gives direction to contemporary practice. The role of artistic and literary collectives today need not jettison agonism as such, but rather its sometimes elitist, chauvinistic, fascistic, and eschatological associations. The responsibility of the avant-garde will instead require an activistic obligation to create and fortify public domains of open source knowledge, to challenge excessive restrictions placed on language and information, to bring forth marginalized knowledges from a position of inaccessibility to the public at large, and to produce and share artistic tactics and works that challenge intellectual property. That which is at stake is nothing less than open accessibility to culture. Hence, writers and artists are becoming more collaborative and interdisciplinary, drawing on the general and specialized skills of archivists, programmers, academics, and community organizers. Recalling the syncretic logic of Wershler-Henry’s the tapeworm foundry, this form of political organization is recognizable in the formal politics of the poem: literary communities begin to participate in the struggle for the commons by advancing an open source artistry as the central axiom of their practice by insisting that the signifying codes that one develops belong to a community that shares, adapts, and transforms its many possible uses. 


Stephen Voyce is an Assistant Professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His work examines twentieth-century poetry and culture, print and digital media, and the history and politics of literary movements. His recent book, Poetic Community: Avant-Garde Activism and Cold War Culture (University of Toronto Press, Spring 2013), addresses several key poetic groups collaborating after World War II. He is currently working on a book project titled Open Source Culture: Literature, Appropriation, and the Public Domain, which investigates how late-twentieth-century poets, fiction writers, and artists creatively subvert intellectual property law and the regimes that enforce these policies. He is a member of the University of Iowa’s Digital Studio for Public Arts & Humanities and the director of the Fluxus Digital Archive.