A Gentle Ferocity: An Interview with Derrick Jensen

As published in Dark Mountain, Vol. 1

Once, while living in Washington DC a few years ago, I went along to a talk by an ecological activist that I had heard a little bit about, Derrick Jensen. I arrived at the talk and found a few people starting to gather for the event.  Being a little shy, I moved on through and headed for the carrot sticks and cucumber at the back. I dawdled there for a while, rocking on my heels, waiting for the talk. I noticed that there was another guy standing quietly in the corner, keeping to himself, dressed in dark colours, not taking up very much space in the room. I generally feel more comfortable meeting people one-on-one, and I sidled over to say hello. It was Derrick Jensen.

Derrick Jensen is an amazingly prolific writer. From early works like A Language Older Than Words (2004) to more recent publications like Endgame (2006), Derrick’s writing offers us a sustained series of meditations on the possibilities of the personal as the political. I would find it hard to think of a writer who inscribes his thoughts with such a delicate combination of vulnerability and purpose. Whether you agree with him or not, one thing that cannot be fairly questioned is his integrity. His words sear with the honesty of his explorations of what it might mean to be human, and what it can mean to make a difference in the face of social, political, and environmental violence and catastrophe.

Although sometimes caricatured as an eco-warrior dam-buster, Derrick’s views are most often subtle, nuanced, and worked with the blood, sweat, and tears of someone who takes their responsibility as a writer very seriously indeed. For me, to read Derrick’s work is often to feel the presence of beauty in the crafting of thoughtful anger. The focus of Derrick’s ire is what he calls “the culture of civilization”, and this critique of “civilization” has been influential in the development of the Dark Mountain manifesto and the “uncivilisation” project at its heart.

As Derrick writes in Endgame, “I would define a civilization … as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined … as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.” In this analysis, the Tolowa, on whose land he now lives, were not civilized, as they lived in villages and camps, as they did for the last 12,500 years without destroying the place. This culture, on the other hand, Derrick explains, has destroyed the place in 150 years. Civilization, for Derrick, is a way of life that is inherently unsustainable: “If your way of life is based on the importation of resources then your way of living can never be sustainable. If you require the importation of resources it means you denuded the landscape of that particular resource. The way to live sustainably is by not harming your habitat, to improve your habitat by your presence. It’s what salmon do. It’s what Redwoods do. It’s what indigenous humans do. You don’t survive in the long run by exploiting your surroundings. You survive in the long run by actually improving your surroundings. Dolores LaChapelle taught me that it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the fit – how well you fit into your surroundings. What I’m saying to people who live in the cities or the country is this way of living is not sustainable, and we’re pretending it is. Denial doesn’t help anybody on this, except maybe to let you pretend that by changing light-bulbs that’s going to make a difference. And the real world is at stake here, so the very least we can do is attempt to be a little bit honest.”

Two things stood out for me as Derrick was speaking. The first was this notion of “survival of the fit”, and its emphasis on the principle of appropriateness-to-context. Another related point was something which I have always found very powerful in Derrick’s work, particularly in his work on teaching, which is an appeal to specificity. In Walking on Water (2004), Derrick writes that “specificity is everything, it’s the only thing we’ve got.” Is that sense of actually being present, being in place, and being connected to what’s around you, is that one of the core challenges, then?

“Yeah, I think one of the core challenges is to first acknowledge that place actually exists. The fundamental difference between western and indigenous ways of being is that westerners generally view the world as consumable resources to be exploited, as opposed to other beings to enter into a relationship with. The notion that the non-human world has anything to say is central to every indigenous culture, and it’s absolutely anathema to this culture which believes that we’re the only ones who have subjective existence. There’s a great line by Canadian lumbermen, “When I look at a tree I see dollar bills”. If all you see when you look at trees is dollar bills, then you’re going to look at them one way. If you look at the trees and see trees, you’ll look at them another way. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about trees or fish or women. If I look at women and see orifices, I’m going to treat them one way. If I look at this particular woman and see a particular woman, I’ll treat her differently. How we perceive the world affects how we behave in it and this culture has systematically driven us insane. John Livingstone wrote about how people perceive cities as being a place where you get overloaded with sounds and sights, but he believes it’s the opposite and I agree, that actually they’re places of sensory deprivation. In this moment, right now, look around and ask yourself, how many things do you see? How many beings do you see? How much of what you see around you, how much of what you perceive is either created or mediated by human beings as opposed to how much of what you see right now is not created or mediated by human beings? Right now I see a closet door, I see a bed, I see crutches, I see a dresser drawer, I see a computer, I see a sewing machine, I see a window. Out the window I see some Redwoods, and that’s through a glass. I hear a fan, I don’t hear any non-humans right now. And how many machines do you have a daily relationship with versus how many wild beings, plants or animals you have a daily relationship with? The point is that we’re living in an echo chamber, and you can start to believe your own hallucinations. And I agree with John Livingstone when he says that most of our ideologies are hallucinations. What’s real? What’s real is the real physical world.

“In order to survive the real world must be primary. I feel like an idiot having to say this, because it is still fundamental, and it is still stupid to live with anything else. The real world is what’s real, and the humans that come after are not going to give a shit about whether we were pacifists or not pacifists. They’re not going to give a shit whether we voted democrat or republican, green, whig, tory, whatever. They’re not going to care if we recycled. They’re not going to care about any of that stuff. What they’re going to care about is whether they can breathe the air and drink the water. What they are going to care about is whether the world can support them. The world is primary, because without the real world you don’t have any social system. 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone and we are long past an emergency situation. We’re fighting for life on the planet here, and people are worried about the economy? It’s stunningly dishonest and it is insane.”

Derrick’s views have brought him quite a bit of attention, some adulatory, some dismissive, some spiteful. Some follow him as a visionary, some peg him as an extremist. I wondered about some of the reactions that he gets to his work. “I routinely get 400-600 people at talks, and I routinely get notes from people saying ‘Thank god, I thought I was the only person thinking these things, and I’m so glad’. I get these every day. Most of the hate mail I’ve gotten frankly has been from, has been horizontal hostility. I’ve gotten more than a thousand pieces of hate mail over the past ten years, and only two of those were from right-wingers. The others were from vegetarians because I eat meat, anti-car activists because I drive a car, pacifists because I don’t believe in pacifism. Basically, one way or another, lifestylists. Anarchists because I’m not anarchist enough for them, whatever. In one sense or another, they’re all lifestylists – people who believe that lifestyle change equals social change, and that’s where most of the vituperation towards me has come. The response has been almost entirely favourable.”

“But there’s no way that anyone can argue realistically that this culture is not killing the planet. This guy came up to me after a talk I did and he said, “You know, my friend (wink, wink), my friend says that it’s not time to fight back yet.” I said, “Well great, 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone – you tell me when your friend thinks it would be okay to fight back – 91%? 92%? 93%? 94%? 95%? 96%? 97%? 98%? 99%?” And he said, “I don’t think it would ever be time to fight back”. And I said, “In that case we have nothing to talk about, do we?” At what point is it okay to fight back? Give me a threshold. And I think we really do need to put those thresholds in, because fundamentally we are all being driven insane by this culture. We should have stopped this culture long ago. I can’t imagine anyone of good heart who can’t see that this culture is effectively killing the planet. What’s the threshold?

One possible response to Derrick’s work is fear – fear of the future, fear about what we might do next. One of the key questions he asks in Endgame is, “Do we believe that our culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?” It seems quite obvious that his answer to this question is “definitely not!” Is it any wonder, then, as he has written elsewhere, that the most common response he has got from environmentalists is “We’re fucked!”?

“Which is good. That’s great, because we can’t begin to … hold on a second … I handwrote this the other day. “Before we can begin to use power on our own terms we must realise we are powerless on theirs. Much of the brilliance of the democratic experiment is “to con the powerless into believing they have power”. What has finally become clear to even the most obtuse is that we the people are powerless in this great democracy. The next turn of the screw was to con us into believing that our power lies in our power to consume, or in our inner power to be enlightened. But only when we realise that we are powerless in all these ways, will we be moved to use power in ways that do affect change.” One of the things I’m trying to do is to help form a culture of resistance that will move us towards effectively stopping this culture. Because, once again, we’re talking about life on the planet here. This is not some fricking computer game.”

There seemed to be an acknowledgement in Derrick’s handwritten statement that the dominant understandings of power tend to render us invisible and politically irrelevant in terms of their own logics. But was there also a glimpse of his trying to revalue the notion of power, trying to find other ways of thinking about power that will be helpful to us?

“I think one of the things we need to do, is we need to ask ourselves, what do we want? What is our goal? And that will help determine the ways we can manifest power and the ways we want to manifest power. I think for a lot of mainstream activists, their goal is to attempt to maintain civilization – they say so explicitly. I’m very clear in what I want. I want to live in a world with wild salmon. I want to live in a world with wild sturgeon. I want to live in a world with migratory songbirds. I want to live in a world with more large fish in the oceans every year than the year before. I want to live in a world with less plastic. I want to live in a world that has less dioxin in a mother’s breast milk. So that’s the first issue – I want people to think about what they want. And the next question is, how do you get there? What are the steps to getting there? We have to make some conscious choices. Right now I am choosing to talk to you on the telephone instead of choosing to blow up a dam, or instead of choosing to do anything else in the world. Whether I make it a conscious choice or not, it is a choice. This is one of the areas where I have got into it with pacifists because every moment we are making a choice and I am choosing to write over other forms of resistance but that doesn’t alter the fact that I am making choices. My point is there is culpability in inaction as well. Standing in the face of a complex situation and doing nothing or acting in your own personal way does not absolve you.”

For me, these discussions about specificity and the culpability lead us right to the heart of Derrick’s critique of hope. He has written that “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. It means you are essentially powerless.”

“That definition is one I really like, and it’s how we talk about hope in everyday language. I don’t hope that I eat something today, I’m just going to do it. On the other hand, the next time I go on a plane, I hope it doesn’t crash, because I’ve no agency once I’m on a plane. If it’s going to crash it’s going to crash, there’s nothing I can do about it. You can do all the writing you want, I can do all the writing I want, we can all theorise however we want, but that doesn’t alter the fact that there are still dams standing. At some point the dams have to go. It’s doesn’t matter how they go, whether they go because you file a lawsuit, or whether they go because you take a sledge hammer or you blow them up, it doesn’t matter. The problem is the physical infrastructure of the dam. Yeah, there’s the personal stuff, too, the psychological stuff, but the fact is it’s not attitudes that are killing salmon, it’s dams, and yes there are attitudes that lead to dams (for god’s sake I’m a writer, I fully understand that, that’s why I was saying that we need to change perspective), but that doesn’t alter the fact that we don’t need to merely change perspective. We need to change physical conditions as well.

“And about the hope thing, I’m not a hope fascist. I attempt to be very clear. What I’m trying to get at with the whole hope thing is what we do and don’t have control over, what we do and don’t have agency over. A friend of mine whose brother was dying of cancer said to me, “So you’re telling me that I can’t hope that my brother survives”, and I said, “No, of course you can hope that your brother survives, but what I’m saying you can’t do is stand there with car keys in your hand and say ‘dear brother, I hope you make it to the hospital’. You drive your brother to the hospital”. So what I’m trying to get at is figure out what we do and don’t have agency over, and to expand the areas over which we do have agency but don’t perceive. Because one of the central points of any oppressive system is to attempt to get you to believe that you are powerless.”

It is well known that Derrick is committed to physical sabotage in principle. Could it not be said, though, that the blowing up of dams to save wild salmon, demonstrates the same kind of false hope that he critiques amongst mainstream environmentalists? Very few people are ever going to do this kind of thing, and if they do they will be caught and jailed very quickly. Eco-sabotage has been tried before many times. How could it ever reach the stage where it starts to bring civilization apart or even succeed on its own terms?

“Well, first off I can guarantee that if you have a defeatist attitude like that, it’s never going to happen. The best way to ensure it doesn’t happen is to pretend it can’t happen. Second, it actually is working right now. I have eight words for you. Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. MEND. People in Nigeria have been able to reduce oil output by up to 40%, and they’ve done this by sabotage and kidnapping oil workers, and they’ve done this against the full might of the Nigerian government, oil companies, and of course the support of other governments around the world. It’s absolute nonsense to say that sabotage doesn’t work. What about the Pankhursts? Look at history? What about the IRA, for god’s sake? What about resistance against the Germans in World War II? The single strongest turning point in the French Resistance in World War II was a recognition that the German military was not invincible. As long as people propose that myth of the absolute omnipotence of the oppressors, we will remain oppressed to precisely that degree. I’ve a friend, and he’s great, he’s just this normal guy who didn’t like the coverage of the invasion of Iraq and so instead of just complaining about it, he went and filled a hole in his corner. What I mean by that is he just went to Iraq, and started reporting what was happening. I love this. Instead of sitting on his ass and thinking ‘they can’t do it’, he just did it himself. That goes to the heart of the whole hope thing. There’s this line by Thomas Jefferson, “in war, they shall kill some of us, and we shall destroy all of them”. And that’s one of the reasons that the dominant culture always wins, because that’s the attitude that they have taken, always, and the attitude the resistance has taken has been the one you mentioned – oh, if they do something they’ll catch us. Well, you know what? Fuck that, because there will be casualities in war, but we need to take on the attitude – “you know what, they may stop me, they may stop you, but we’re going to take out every last dam, we’re going to take out every last corporation.” What happens if we match their relentlessness with our own? Because the truth is, they want to win more than we do. That’s the bottom line. They have this insatiability. Most environmentalists don’t know what the fuck we want. What do we want? Maybe we want to live in a world that uses a bit less electricity and the electricity is made by wind farms, never mind what that does for bats? Let’s get clear on what we want, and let’s do it. And there will be generations. These struggles last a long time, and that’s how any social change comes about – you lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win. I mean that was the Suffragettes, the suffragettes were generation after generation. The Pankhursts went three generations. There’s generation after generation in the Irish struggle. There’s generation after generation in the civil rights struggle. The leaders of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties were the grandchildren of the Pullman Porters, and they themselves were the children and grandchildren of slaves. We have to dedicate ourselves to the struggle and we have to say, hey, yes, we’ll have setbacks, but it time it will be you that grows tired.

Given my own background, I felt drawn to reply to his use of the Irish example. “One of the things about the Irish example, which you’ve brought up yourself, is that for many of us living here, talking about “the Irish struggle” is so incredibly simplistic and it fits too neatly into the binary oppositions of war metaphors, it fits too neatly into-“

“I don’t give a shit about war metaphors. There is an enemy, and those enemies have names. James Inhofe, the capitalists in general, the capitalist system, and that’s one of the things we need to do. The first thing we need to do is we need to decolonise our hearts and minds. Salmon don’t get conflicted. Indigenous people I know don’t get conflicted, “oh we can’t get into a binary system of us and them’. It’s like, fuck that! Tecumseh knew who the enemy was, and yes, there is a binary system. The enemy is the capitalists, and the first thing we need to do, and every indigenous person says this to me, the first thing we need to do is to decolonise our hearts and minds, and as soon as we do that, as soon as we switch our allegiance to where we live, it becomes very, very clear. You can’t trump this by saying that’s a war binary metaphor or a war binary image. So what? It’s true, there are enemies, and they are my enemies, and the capitalist system, and the capitalists themselves are my enemies, and I’ve got no problem saying that.”

This raised a question for me about possible consequences of Derrick’s position. One of the many explicit assumptions in Endgame is the notion that “violence always flows in one direction”. I do sometimes wonder whether taking that stance can sometimes immunize us against critique of our own enactments of violence, maybe even guaranteeing that we are always on the side of the angels. Isn’t it important to leave more of a space for the critique of what we’re at?

“Gosh, do you think that after fifteen books I haven’t thought of this? Oh my god. Frankly the last few minutes have been really bugging me. I deal with this at length. In how many books have I mentioned Robert Jay Lifton’s “claims to virtue”? I talk about this in most of my books because it’s absolutely necessary. But Robert Jay Lifton talks about how before we can commit any mass atrocity you have to convince yourself that what you’re doing is actually in fact beneficial, and so the Nazis had themselves convinced that they were not committing atrocities, that they were not committing genocide against Jewish people, that they weren’t committing mass murder against Eastern Europeans, they weren’t killing homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, etc. Instead what they were doing was purifying the Aryan race. Likewise, capitalists can convince themselves that what they are doing is not destroying the world, instead they’re developing natural resources. And this is true on a personal level. I myself have never once in my life been an asshole. Every time I’ve been an asshole I’ve had it fully rationalised. I am fully aware of the fact, and I write about this in every book. I am fully aware that one can rationalise atrocities and can convince oneself that one is actually doing good when one is actually doing harm, and that’s one reason why I’ve tried so hard in my books to attempt to develop a morality to figure out what can one base a morality on? And one of the things that I came to in Endgame is that clean water is the basis of a morality, because without clean water you die. And so, if something makes drinkable quantities of clean water, that’s a good thing, you can build up a morality from there. On the other hand, I realised that was actually not sufficient, because you can have a water purification system that temporarily creates, at a cost of great energy, temporarily creates drinkable clean water. That’s when I realised that the real question is, do you leave the real physical world a better place because you were born? Just because I recognise there are enemies of the planet that doesn’t mean I don’t remain open and fluid in my analysis.”

One of the reasons that I was enthralled by A Language Older Than Words was precisely because of it’s core of self-critique, its open exploration and critique of the logics of committing violence against violence, on a deeply personal level. It was easily the most honest self-interrogation I had come across. It was someone very clearly trying to make sense of their own experience of thinking and feeling and doing, within a context that was very clearly their own context. I think one of the reasons I was prodding him further on these things was very much because I value the courage in his work. Clearly Derrick self-identifies as a writer, not least because he is so incredibly prolific. Why is writing so powerful for him?

“One part of it is, as a friend of mine says, what are the most pressing problems you can help to solve given the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe? And I have a gift for writing and I need to use that. Like I was saying about my friend in Iraq, I saw a hole in discourse and I tried to fill it. I remember years ago talking to my friend Jeanette Armstrong about an essay that Ward Churchill had written attacking Jerry Mander, and I asked Jeanette what she thought about it and Jeanette said, “If Ward didn’t like it he should have written his own damn book”. That was probably fifteen years ago, and it has really stuck with me. If I don’t agree with somebody or another’s approach, what I should do for the most part is I should write my own damn book. I’ve been blessed to have a really active muse, and my muse is as frightened as I am of circumstances and is willing to push me as hard as I’ll go.

“I like to tell a story … I was watching The Battle of Algiers with a friend of mine. it’s a great movie about the Algerian resistance against the French, and I said to my friend, “So, who would I be in this movie?” And my friend said, “Oh, you’d be dead.” I said, “Oh, thank you very much.” “No,” he said, “you’ve been dead for thirty years and you’re books are on the bookshelves of the insurgents”. I have grown very clear over time about what my role is. My role is to put little pieces of wood and kindling and paper, to pile them up, and to put them just so, and to put some lighter fluid on that, and it’s somebody else’s job to light the match. My job is to get bringing down civilization to pass the lab test, you know? So that’s why I write, that’s what I’m good at. I was doing a video presentation for a class maybe a month ago, two months ago, and one of the people in the class said, “You know, I don’t buy it. Why are you really writing, because you should be out blowing up dams. I don’t buy that you do this because you’re better at writing than you are at chemistry.” (I stink at chemistry). I said, “Well, how many writers have you encountered who are actively calling for us to bring down civilization?” And she said, “one”. I said, “That’s why I write.” You know? There’s nobody else doing this work. One of the things people should do is find the place where you see a hole and fill it.

In 2007 Derrick wrote an extended preface to Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology, a book which directly addresses the question of whether violence is ever an acceptable tool to help bring about social change. The preface provides a short introduction to themes and issues explored at greater length in Endgame, with a particular focus on “dogmatic pacifism”. Point by point he addresses what he sees as the crucial weaknesses of pacifist positions, “deconstructing pacifist arguments that don’t make any sense anyway”. I wondered about his well-documented position on pacifism.

“I have a good time bashing pacifists in Endgame, but the truth is that pacifists were very, very important to the abolition struggle, for example. Harriet Tubman carried a gun, but many of the people in safe-houses along the underground railroad did not. They were run by pacifists. And my problem is not with someone being pacifist at all. I don’t give a shit what someone’s personal proclivities are. The important thing is, I think, to recognise that we need a range of resistance which includes everything from military resistance to absolutely non-military resistance. I was sharing the stage with this friend of mine, Carol Rathensberger, who’s a pacifist, she’s great, and at one point when we’re on the stage, she’s talking about, “Oh, you know a sustainable community would look like, and smell like, and here’s how we make decisions in a sustainable community”, and she went on and on, and she’s great, but I’m fidgeting in my chair the whole time, and she looks at me and says, “obviously you want to say something, Derrick, so what do you want to say”, and I said, “I love what you’re saying, but those in power are sociopaths and the culture itself is sociopathological, and how do we get there from here?” And she smiled at me really sweetly, and said “That’s your job to figure that out, Derrick.” I did a talk years ago at Bioneers, and it was really frustrating for me because as far as I know I was the only person there who was talking about either power or sociopathology. Lots of people were talking about all these groovy things you can do to relocalise and that’s great, but what are you going to do when it ends up there’s a resource on your land that those in power want? At some point we need to talk about self-defence. I’ve known some transition town people who combine relocalisation with firearms skillshare, and with making self-defence on both a personal and a community level a priority. I think that’s great. That’s the thing, you know, really, I’m suggesting with all this that we need it all.”

When Derrick talks about varieties of resistance, it seems important to me that we also talk about varieties of internal resistance. One of the things that I think is crucially important about Derrick Jensen’s work for pacifists is that if they don’t take his work or Peter Vanderloos’ work or Ward Churchill’s work seriously, then how are they going to realistically clarify their own positions?

“I agree totally. The same thing has happened the other way. I’ve been able to hone a lot of these arguments by having those disagreements with pacifists, or whatever. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Endgame, because I got in so many arguments with pacifists that I just wanted to write out the arguments once and for all so I could be done with it. I really like the definition of violence that violence is any act that causes harm to another. And I really like that because it shows the ubiquity of violence, and it demystifies it, and it leads to other questions. So, every time I defecate I’m killing gazillions of bacteria and every time I eat a carrot I’m killing a living being there, too. I think that most of us under most circumstances would agree that it’s morally acceptable to commit an act of violence against a carrot, to eat it. I think most of us under most circumstances would agree that it’s not morally acceptable to commit an act of violence against a human being. I think that’s pretty clear. What I want to find out is where do we individually, where do we collectively draw those lines, and that’s the discussion that I think is really interesting about violence. Is it morally acceptable to kill a carrot? Is it morally acceptable to raise a carrot in a factory farm situation? Is it morally acceptable to kill a chicken? Is it morally acceptable to raise a chicken in a factory farm situation? Is it morally acceptable to kill Ted Bundy? Is it morally acceptable to kill Sarah Palin? Is it morally acceptable to kill me? Where do you and where do I and where do we as a collective in our communities, and whatever social groups we want to talk about, I would like to make those as conscious as possible. That’s one of the things I want to do with my discussions. And if somebody says it’s never acceptable to kill a human being under any circumstances, it’s like, okay, let’s start throwing out … what about Hitler? In 1939, Georg Elser’s assassination attempt. And then to round the stuff out, because out discourse surrounding violence is just so squishy and ridiculous, and harmful, frankly.”

One of the things that Derrick has written is that he doesn’t “provide alternatives because there is no need”. But what I suggested to him was that one of the strongest parts of his work is that he is constantly providing alternatives, not necessarily in terms of what we should do, but in terms of other ways of looking at things. Is he inviting people to a more honed ethical awareness?

“Well, thank you. I really like that. That’s one of the nicest things you could say, and I don’t disagree with that at all. Yeah, I probably am not being clear that when I’m not telling people what to do. There are a few reasons for that. One of them is that I don’t know people and frankly I’ve been approached by some people who want to blow up dams who are either crazy, literally crazy as in think they’re Marie Antoinette or something, or who are very young, and there are many reasons why I would never suggest what that person do, one of which is that I don’t know them. Another is, that it’s one thing to talk to an adult, to talk to someone who is capable of making decisions for themselves, to have a discussion with them, and it’s quite another thing to have a discussion with someone who is either very young or otherwise has problems. I used to say that I’m a recruiter for the revolution, but then that’s not true. And one of the reasons it’s not true is because of what military recruiters do, where they basically try to con people into joining the military. And what I want people to do is to make informed decisions about what they need to do with their life.”

I suppose that’s one of the challenges of being a writer, I suggested. A lot of his work could very easily be taken as a banner for people to wave or a clarion call. I’m a great fan of lifting up words and looking underneath them to see what the attitude of the person is behind the words, beyond the words, but one of the challenges of writing is that many times readers don’t do that, they often just take the words and run. They might not be particularly interested in the bigger picture that the words suggest, taking  a particular page, or a particular sentence, or even a particular word and making of it what they will.

“There are a couple of things about that. One of them is, absolutely, I get misinterpreted all the time, and I used to take that more personally until I realised that I actually do that, too. I’ll read somebody else’s work and I get confused, and so I can see how that will happen. But people misinterpret me. I can say something that I think is pretty clear, and somebody will just take it wherever they’re going to go, and it’s like “gosh, I never actually said that”. I get pegged a lot of times as a violence guy, but I’m not at all, cause I recommend so many times that what we need is a full range of resistance.”

Derrick speaks a lot about the horrors of civilization, but what about the deconstruction of civilization? As his book Walking on Water (2004) showed, he also identifies very deeply as an educator. What role do we have as educators of each other in the unweaving of civilization?

“It’s like I said, that one of the first things we need to do is decolonise, and I think that we can help each other through that process, and it can help to have validation, to have a friend with whom you can have a conversation, and say, “Hey, the stock market went down three hundred points today”, and say “Yes, that’s great”, as opposed to having to explain why that’s not bad. I don’t have any friends any more with whom I have to revisit ‘Civilization Is Bad 101’. There was a time I kept questioning that, and I remember asking Jeanette Armstrong, who was one of my mentors many years ago, “do you ever question that everything you are thinking is wrong?” She said, “I used to question, but I don’t any more.” And I’m at that stage, too, where, you know, I used to question whether maybe I was just wrong about all of this stuff, but probably around writing Culture of Make Believe (2004), I thought, no, my analysis of the culture is right-on. There are other things that I still question, but I don’t question that any more, and part of that is being surrounded by friends with whom you don’t have to say why it’s bad for a creature to be driven extinct.”

Something that comes across in Derrick’s writing is that he is a person who loves life, a person who is also really very gentle in many ways, in spite of the intensity of his themes. I’ve stood in his presence, I know him to have the presence of what I would consider a very gentle person. It’s also interesting that I have heard him characterised by people who don’t know him as anything but gentle.

“It’s pretty funny, when Endgame came out I did this radio interview and about ten minutes into the radio interview, there were two hosts, they just burst out laughing and said, “You’re a nice guy! We were kind of expecting you to be pounding and spitting.” It’s pretty funny. On a personal level, I’m pretty non-violent. I’m not naturally a bellicose person. It used to kind of disturb me that I was writing about these issues, but then I thought, no, actually, I think I’m the person who should be writing about these issues, or one of the people who should. I’m not actually inherently an angry person at all. I’m pretty even tempered. I can get annoyed or whatever, but I think I’ve only shouted at two people, and one of those was my sister. Somebody said in a review of one of my books, and I really liked it. They said that I was almost pathologically unsentimental, and I like that. Not unemotional, obviously. I don’t really know what it means, but I like it.”

Special thanks to Derrick Jensen for agreeing to do this interview while recovering from surgery. 

All That Is Not Given Is Lost: Irish Traditional Music, Copyright, and Common Property

Ethnomusicology  2001, Vol. 45, No. 1

Irish music in a traditional idiom finds itself in the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand Irish traditional music has become a global phenomenon, lending its symbolic and commercial weight, replete with what Irish cultural historian Luke Gibbons calls, “the communal Prozac of the heritage industry” (1996:172), to anything from Riverdance™ to Xena,™ Warrior Princess and its ethereal glances of uilleann pipe inciden­tals. Commercially speaking, the music has never been as popular, a boon for those determined to make a living playing the music that they live by. On the other hand we find that the embedded cultural practices and val­ues that have supported the transmission and life of the music are being threatened as a result of the very embeddedness, their being taken for grant­ed, that has guaranteed their lack of articulation thus far.

The aim of this paper is twofold. Firstly, I feel it necessary to clarify the nature of the social relationships that are inextricably bound up with Irish traditional musical practice, in partial answer to Luke Gibbons’ com­ment that, “though much valuable work has been done on Irish society from the point of view of economic development, political mobilization, and administrative structures, very little has focused on culture as a set of ma­terial practices informing and constituting the social environment” (1996:10). To do this, I shall address issues of gift and commodity, ultimately concluding that grass‑roots Irish traditional music transmission rests upon an as‑yet‑unarticulated system of gift or sharing. And secondly, I believe that it is crucial that we clarify the power relations and the dynamic processes that frame those social relationships. For this purpose, I shall use certain aspects of Common Property Theory, still a very young field, with a view to highlighting the actors and signposting directions. As Michael Goldman has written,

“The commons‑a material and symbolic reality, always changing, never purely local or global, traditional or modern, and always reflect­ing the vibrant colors of its ecological, political, cultural, scientific and social character‑is not at all disappearing into the dustbin of history. To the contrary, we find that the commons are increasingly becoming a site for robust and tangible struggles . . .” (1998:14).

At the UNESCO/WIPO World Forum on the Protection of Folklore in Phuket, Thailand (April 1997), it was admitted that: “The participants were of the view that at present there is no international standard of protection for folklore and that the copyright regime is not adequate to ensure such protection” (WIPO 1997). As has been elaborated in a number of sources (McCann 1998; Mills 1996; Seeger 1996; Weiner 1987), the musical prac­tices that support traditional music transmission abide by models of creativ­ity, collaboration, and participation that together add up to the antithesis of the text‑based, individualist, and essentially capitalist nature of intellec­tual property regimes. All problems relating to copyright and neighboring rights in traditional musics can ultimately be traced back to these issues. Hence the need to develop a sui generis system of protection for traditional culture and traditional musical expression, one that grows from the nature of traditional systems as they are, rather than one imposed on them as the way they should be. The challenge we face is to attempt to reconcile these two apparently irreconcilable world views in practical terms.

The Irish Context

The last three years have seen a growing but notoriously vague aware­ness in the Irish traditional music scene of a conflict of interest that involves publicans, amateur practitioners of traditional music and song, and the performance royalties collection agency, the Irish Music Rights Organiza­tion (IMRO). This growing awareness has led to a national newspaper arti­cle proclaiming “Save the Session” (Vallely 1997). At the same time, there has arisen a public debate clouded in ambiguity and a lack of direction due to a lack of a shared lexicon or conceptual consensus and the complica­tions of the philosophical basis of copyright legislation.

A very small percentage of traditional musicians are members of the Irish Music Rights Organization (IMRO). IMRO claims the right to police traditional compositions despite being originally formed to serve the needs of commercial songwriters. IMRO claims that it only has the best interests of musicians at heart, and within its own circle of logic this is undoubted­ly true. IMRO was formed to champion the cause of commercial compos­ers and songwriters, and feels duty‑bound to extend its reach on the assump­tion that all musical practice is commodity exchange, an assumption founded on the epistemologies of neo‑classical economics.1 To diffuse grow­ing hostility among traditional musicians, and in the shadow of a develop­ing Copyright Bill in the Irish parliament, IMRO recently signed an agreement (1999)2 with the largest voluntary music body in Irish traditional music, Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann, both parties claiming, as a result of the agreement, that the “copyright‑free status of traditional music” has been secured. This does not, however, mean that the fundamental philosophi­cal issues at the heart of the conflict have been resolved, and they will most likely surface again in another form.

As Irish traditional music has increasingly entered the commercial are­na, collectors of traditional songs and tunes, and performers of traditional tunes3 are personally claiming copyright on works presumed to be in the “public domain,”4 Increasingly, however, many new compositions in tra­ditional idioms are assumed to be in the “public domain,” even though the composers can often be sourced, and many of whom are still alive. Usual­ly this is the result of laziness or an unwillingness to source the tune or song. The reluctance of traditional composers to copyright their tunes, thus leav­ing their work vulnerable to piracy, stems from a complex web of social relationships, and a recognition of a “tradition” that incorporates past, present and future generations, and is often simply a case of offering a tune up to the possibility of future anonymity.

A recent study by Carlos Salazar entitled A Sentimental Economy: Commodity and Community in Rural Ireland (1996) states, “We have seen that the farming communities of the west of Ireland are deeply inte­grated into the world market economy, and they undoubtedly participate in the individualistic and profit‑maximizing ethos that characterizes all cap­italist societies, but they still have a substantial sphere of noncommodity transactions” (1996:126). I would argue in no uncertain terms that the same can be said of Irish traditional music and the musicians that practice it. I would go further to suggest that the noncommodity aspect of Irish musi­cal practice, with both its amateur and participatory aspects, is the lifeblood, the “cultural glue” that holds the whole system together.

The Session

Undoubtedly the most popular form of Irish traditional musical activi­ty in public places5 is the “session.”6 Involving at least three people who play jigs, reels, hornpipes, planxties, and so on in heterophonic union, with the odd solo thrown in, this musical practice takes place for the most part in pubs,7 a typical “third space,”8 the site of an obvious cultural lubricant, and also in houses, although those gatherings have more the character of private parties. It has become an extremely widespread phenomenon, al­lowing at best (deliberate moral overtones) the shepherded involvement of younger or less experienced players by older and respected musicians, and is the site of most musical transmission.9 It is the site of focus for a complex system of codes and etiquettes,10 humiliations and value reinforce­ments that are distilled from the wider context of the Irish traditional scene. Many musicians involved in sessions are also professionals,11 many of them full‑time, a number of them most likely members of IMRO, but once embraced by the aura of the session, the hierarchies are of a “traditional” not a commercial nature. As is evident by the paraphrasing below, a por­tion of C. A. Gregory’s analysis of Papua New Guinea is equally applicable to a discussion of the session:

The gift economy of [the Irish instrumental session] has not been destroyed by [commercialism] but has effloresced. The labor‑time devoted to the produc­tion and exchange of things as gifts has risen rather than fallen, a change that has occurred simultaneously with the introduction of [paid sessions, commer­cial recording, and regular concert opportunities]. To understand this process, it is necessary to abandon the concept of dualism which classifies this part of the economy (e.g. urban sector) as “modern,” and that part (e.g. rural sector) as “traditional.” The fact of the matter is that the whole economy is “modern.” The gift exchange practiced in [Irish instrumental session culture] is not a pre­colonial relic but a contemporary response to contemporary conditions …. Economic activity is not a natural form of activity. It is a social act and its meaning must be understood with reference to the social relationships between people in historically specific settings. The essence of the [Irish musical] econ­omy today is ambiguity. A [tune] is now a gift, now a commodity, depending upon the social context of the transaction …. It is because of this ambiguity that the concept of dualism, with its clearly defined traditional sector, must be abandoned. (1982:115)

One of the top traditional musicians in the commercial scene has com­mented to me that there is no greater thrill than hearing one of her own tunes at a session with no‑one knowing who composed it (personal inter­view, 1997). Authorship takes a back seat as a designation of respect and cultural .capital rather than ownership. As another celebrated performer commented to me: “I mean, like, nobody owns the stuff. You can’t own this stuff’ (personal interview, 1999). But “the tune”12 in this situation has been placed in that site of ambiguity mentioned above. For IMRO the tune undoubtedly walks, talks and quacks like a commodity. For the musicians engaged in the session the tune cannot be separated out from the social and historical context of the non‑commodified musical moment, in a pro­cess of forging and acts of personal courage, where “Talent is tested. The self is risked and accomplished. Human power is restrained and focused to make the self a gift to the other, the past a gift to the future. Past and present, internal and external collapse into union” (Glassie 1995:146). There is also the widespread practice, as Gregory has identified in general terms, of de‑commodification, of tunes having been written as commercial, com­modified money‑making “works” with the cow‑bell of copyright draped around their neck, only to be transformed in the context of the session into gifts to be distributed freely among musicians in a context of tradition and community.13

The session conforms readily to the idea of a “gift cycle”: “In a gift cycle the gift is given without contract or agreement about return. And yet it does return; a circulation is set up and can be counted upon”(Hyde 1983:114). The gift is the risk of self, the tunes, the songs, the chat, the shared expe­rience, the history of personal endeavor. As another musician commented: “The music doesn’t belong to anybody, so if somebody’s trying to learn it and you can help them, it’s not yours, so it’s not like you can hold back, because it’s not yours anyway. There have been people who have come to the sessions who have been rude, and I’ve had differences with them. But if somebody is sincere and it seems like they’re trying to tap into the spirit of the music then you have to stretch your hand out to them” (per­sonal interview, 1998).14

Intellectual Property and Commodification

At this stage in history it is almost impossible to separate intellectual property from its role as an instrument of commodification within capital­ist systems (Bettig 1996). In fact, the development of capitalism and intel­lectual property have been concurrent (Rose 1993, Woodmansee and Jas­zi 1994). The appearance in the eighteenth century of things of the mind as transferable articles of property matured simultaneously with the capi­talist system (Jaszi 1992). It could be argued that the application of intel­lectual property in any circumstance assumes the a priori application of capitalism, where the production and distribution of goods depend on in­vested private cultural capital and profit‑making. If this is the case, then unlimited participation in a capitalist system, which seeks by its nature the furthermost penetration of the market, and the unbounded acceptance of intellectual property as a legal solution, impose an unnecessarily individu­alist vision. Ecologist Vandana Shiva has written:

The first restriction of Intellectual Property Rights is the shift from common rights to private rights. This excludes all kinds of knowledge, ideas, and inno­vations that take place in the “intellectual commons” . . . The second restric­tion of Intellectual Property Rights is that they are recognized only when knowl­edge and innovation generate profits, not when they meet social needs …. This immediately excludes all sectors that produce and innovate outside the indus­trial mode of organization of production. Profits and capital accumulation are recognized as the only ends to which creativity should be put. (1993:115)

Recognition that intellectual property is not going to go away15 makes it tempting to just accept that intellectual property is the lesser evil. But unchanged application of intellectual property rights carries profound implications, as Stephen Gudeman rightly points out:

In my view, the use of intellectual property rights on an international scale to compensate nonmarket economies not only raises problematic issues but pre­sents a paradox. Some people would use the legal and monetary entitlements afforded by intellectual property rights to protect and foster the local knowl­edge and innovations of a folk in order to secure global equity and help them preserve community identity. But if intellectual property rights is a property and component of Western capitalism, then abetting its acceptance elsewhere must lead to economic transformation or adoption of the market form ex­actly among those people whom it is said to protect. (1996:104)

Common Property Studies

In The Ecologist magazine of July/August 1992 (Goldsmith et al. 1992), one reads:

Despite its ubiquity, the commons is hard to define. It provides sustenance, security and independence, yet (in what many Westerners feel to be a para­dox) typically does not produce commodities …. Systems of common rights, far from evolving in isolation, often owe their very existence to interaction and struggle between communities and the outside world. It is arguably only in reaction to invasion, dispossession or other threats to accustomed security of access that the concept of common rights emerges.

I have found it useful, in assessing traditional music as it intersects with issues of intellectual property, to turn to Common Property16 Studies. It is widely believed, though not entirely true, that Common Property Studies has primarily developed in response to the 1968 publication of Garrett Har­din’s article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which described the collapse of an unmanaged commons comprised of self‑interested individuals. This literature17 generally distinguishes four property regimes: open access, common property resources, private property, and state property. The two that most concern us here are open access and common property. “Open access is the absence of well‑defined property rights. Access to the resource is unregulated and is free and open to everyone” (Feeny et al. 1998:79).18 Common Property Resources (CPRs) fulfill two criteria. The first is that of non‑excludability, which is well‑illustrated in Douglas Noonan’s example of the Internet, where “excluding users from the Internet is technically impossible or prohibitively expensive” (1998:189). We have only to think of Mark Slobin’s comment that, “A music can suddenly move beyond all its natural boundaries and take on a new existence, as if it has fallen into the fourth dimension” (1993:20).19 The second criterion is that of subtractabil­ity or rivalrous consumption, “the source of the potential divergence between individual and collective rationality” where “each user is capable of subtracting from the welfare of other users” (Feeny et al. 1998:78).20 As Noonan describes it in relation to the Internet, “Too many users can over­load different links in the network chain, reducing the value of other trans­missions congested at that point” (1998:189). Musically speaking we have a number of areas for comparison here.

Firstly, there is the question of musical sound acting in support of a particular value system, within a particular value system. To what extent is the actual musical sound bound up with the values of the community from which it comes? To what extent do the “participatory discrepancies” (Keil and Feld 1994) or the “fuzzy edges” disclose a sonically ordered world­view? The further the music moves from its origin, the less likely that these “extras” will be passed on in transmission. Does it matter? I believe it does.

Secondly, modifying Sahlins’ concept of “kinship distance (1972), the further that music moves from its register of origin, the more likely, it seems, it is to be commodified. This has certainly happened in Irish traditional music, something which certainly changes, if not radically reduces the social value of the music. The question of individuals copyrighting tunes that have been held in common for time immemorial is another site for rivalrous consumption. As Bish writes, “the existence of valuable unowned resources provides an incentive for individuals to try to capture the resource before other potential users can do so”(1998:66). It will be interesting, in further research, to see to what extent Irish traditional music fits the criteria for CPRs,21 and to what extent common property theory can be enriched by studies of traditional transmission.

Where Common Property theory is most useful in the context of copy­right and traditional music is in the identification of the process of “enclo­sure.” We have already seen how a central element of Irish traditional mu­sic is based on an idea of gift, which supports what could be seen as a characteristically non‑commodified common property resource. It would not be too difficult to then see the commodifying processes of neo‑classical eco­nomics, commercialism in music, and of the conceptually‑bound and con­ceptually‑driven agency of the Irish Music Rights Organization as an exam­ple of enclosure in a musical context. In The Ecologist we read, “Enclosure cordons off those aspects of the environment that are deemed “useful” to the encloser . . . . Instead of being a source of multiple benefits, the environ­ment becomes a one‑dimensional asset to be exploited for a single purpose­that purpose reflecting the interests of the encloser, and the priorities of the wider political economy in which the encloser operates” (Goldsmith et al. 1992). Music becomes product, musician becomes producer in the capital­ist process of commodity production.22 Again, Goldsmith at al. write:

Enclosure claims that its own social frame, its language, is a universal norm, an all‑embracing matrix which can assimilate all others. Whatever may be “lost in translation” is supposedly insignificant, undeveloped or inferior to what is gained …. Because they hold themselves to be speaking a universal language, the modern enclosers who work for development agencies and governments feel no qualms in presuming to speak for the enclosed. They assume reflex­ively that they understand their predicament as well as or better than the en­closed do themselves. It is this tacit assumption that legitimizes enclosure in the encloser’s mind‑and it is an assumption that cannot be countered simply by transferring the visible trappings of power from one group to another.

So what are some of the lessons that can be learned from interpreting the practices of Irish traditional music as a common property resource? The threat of the “Tragedy of the (unmanaged) Commons” is undoubtedly a real one. What warning signs are there? John Baden has written that,

Tragedy strikes when self‑interest and social interest diverge . . . a common‑pool resource is a resource for which there are multiple owners (or a number of people who have nonexclusive rights to use the resource) and where one or a set of users can have adverse effects upon the interests of other users. In the situation where there is no agency with the power to coordinate or to ration use, action which is individually rational can be collectively disastrous. This is the central point of the “tragedy of the commons.” (1998:51‑52)

Need we be mindful of the commercially motivated actions of profes­sional Irish “traditional” musicians and the potentially harmful effects of their activity in a time of “communal Prozac”? What Noonan has written of the Internet strikes a number of pertinent echoes when applied to tra­ditional music in an Irish context,

. . . for the Internet to continue creating new value, it must remain robust and functional‑and not fall victim to its commons status. Up to now, the pressures on the Internet infrastructure have been relatively light, but the staggering growth in use leads‑to justifiable concern about “managing the commons.” The Inter­net currently has ingredients for tragedy: open access, rivalrous use, and rising value and decreasing costs of access to users. Limiting access to the Internet is highly problematic because of its abstract, global nature, and open access is in­tegral to the Internet’s character. Infinitesimal marginal costs of use make me­tering use difficult; charging access fees, for instance, is often more costly than the access itself. If nothing changes, some might reasonably expect the Internet to eventually crash …. Avoiding this requires addressing problems of overuse (appropriation) and undermaintenance (provision).” (Noonan 1998:190)

All That Is Not Given Is Lost

The Common Property paradigm clearly enunciates some of the pres­sures that are being brought to bear on the continued practice of Irish
tra­ditional music in its amateur and non‑commodified forms. It also invites us to properly address the underlying complexities in those areas where Slobin’s (1983) “subcultures,” “intercultures,” and “supercultures” intersect, challenging us to dispense with false dualisms:

Our studies . . . do not present themselves as essentially anti‑modern or solely dependent on either private property or community‑controlled commons for their survival. They demand that their worlds be recognized as situated with­in multiple (albeit contradictory) linkages that can be empowering while also running the risk of being exploitative. (Goldman 1998:13)

If the continued commodification of Irish traditional music is allowed to go unchecked, or is even allowed the force of law through the imposition of intellectual property and neighboring rights upon amateur and inherently non‑commodified musicking contexts, then a very precious, and ultimate­ly humanizing domain of gift will be diminished. One of the reasons that processes such as these have gone without opposition or even without clarification for so long is that the value systems are deeply embedded in cultural practice (Bourdieu 1977; Foucault 1990, 1995): “These communi­ties are ruled by a set of rights and obligations that do not have to be ex­plicitly manifest in each particular interaction, since they are taken for grant­ed” (Salazar 1996:151). Silence against political processes that are in no way benign invites dehumanization and suppresses individual responsibility to past, present and future. As Glassie writes, “Silence is not harmless. It brings disengagement. As surely as the evil tongue, silence threatens the destruc­tion of the self and the community” (Glassie 1995:35). This is a question of music as community, community as music, the consolidation of person­al participation. In Glassie’s words, “True communities are built not of dewy affection or ideological purity but of engagement” (Glassie 1995:282).

So, where to from here? Michael Goldman outlines the pessimistic view in Common Property Studies,

On the one hand, we know that capitalism can’t stop. It is a kind of malignan­cy which will keep on devouring new resources even as it undermines the very body . . . upon which it depends. Codes of conduct and voluntary restraint are laughably (or lamentably) inadequate to protect common property resources from capitalist confiscation, because that appropriation allows the cancer to spread for a while longer. This is why the stakes keep rising and the subject of the commons, whether in its local or global form, is now so hotly debated. (Goldman 1998:xiv)

The contexts for musical practice that are untouched by the hand of either competitions, tourism‑oriented showcases, or commercial perfor­mance are becoming few in number. We can seek to re‑evaluate the role of intellectual property as it impacts on Irish traditional music by coming to an understanding, in future work, of what I identify as the “Cultural Commons,” in an attempt to wrest our approaches away from the goods­-based, economic analysis that has until now dominated CPR literature.

We need to be careful not to prescribe cultural activity. We need to assert the contemporary validity of traditional practices as a contemporary response to contemporary conditions. In the words of sociologist Craig Jackson Calhoun, “I shall ask that we go still further beyond the Enlighten­ment’s historicist opposition of tradition to modernity and see tradition as grounded less in the historical past than in everyday social, practice” (1983:888). We need to carefully examine the registers of social interac­tion within which traditional practices occur, for it is here that the keys to transmission will be found. We need to explore the effect of gift, and the effect on gift of market relations. We need to be aware of the human di­mension of intellectual property application, the human dimension of in­dividualist possessiveness, the distancing effects of increasing profession­alization, the drive to convert folklore into spectacle, the change that all of these effect upon relationships, upon community, and ultimately upon the transmission process:

. . . a circulation of gift nourishes those parts of our spirit that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature, the group, the race, or the gods. Fur­thermore, although these wider spirits are a part of us, they are not “ours”; they are endowments bestowed upon us. To feed them by giving away the increase they have brought us is to accept that our participation in them brings with it an obligation to preserve their vitality. When, on the other hand, we reverse the direction of the increase‑when we profit on exchange or convert “one man’s gift to another man’s capital”‑we nourish that part of our being (or our group) which is distinct and separate from others. Negative reciprocity strengthens the spirits‑constructive or destructive‑of individualism and clan­nishness. (Hyde 1983:38)

It is crucial that the legal system, informed by consultative scholarship, recognizes the wealth, the breadth, and, most importantly, the social na­ture of traditional musics and transmission, and that it invites a fair, accu­rate, and proportioned representation of the music and its cultural context. The challenge is to effect a paradigm shift from the dominant folklore‑as­materials to folklore‑as‑practice. The challenge is to find ways to support traditional practices, by legal means, in education and in community action. To quote Calhoun,

During times when the existing order seems deeply threatened. . . such com­munities may find that they can be traditional only by being radical. (Calhoun 1983:911) 

Notes

1. Copyright is the foundation upon which the Music Business rests (Frith, ed. 1993).

2. See the press release at http://www.imro.ie/Old News/1999/comh.html.
Also http://www.imro.ie/Old_News/1999/Comhaltas2.htm1.

3. At the present time in Ireland a musician is allowed to garner 100% performance or mechanical royalties for the fixation of an “arrangement” of a traditional tune. However, there is no definition available that clarifies exactly what a “traditional” tune is. Most people assume that traditional means that the tune was composed by someone, but that no one knows who, that it is an anonymous composition. This equating of “anonymous” with “traditional” is the position of the Irish Music Rights Organization. Many people, assuming that traditional is a marker of genre, think that anything that sounds “traditional” is therefore anonymous and that they can get full royalties.

4. “Public domain” is a concept that stems from the construction of copyright, and is that space that is left over after all else has been parsed out. Anything that is not in copyright is regarded as “public domain,” effectively infinity minus copyright. However, “public domain” is synonymous with uninhibited exploitation of the music or song, and it reinforces the anon­ymous/authored dichotomy. Not only is a piece that sounds traditional often assumed to be of unknown origin, but it is therefore assumed to be open to all for free and unbridled ex­ploitation. In musical practice ‘public domain’ is inadequate, logically enough, as copyright, the foil of “public domain,” has also proved so. In real terms, traditional Irish musical prac­tice has not been open access, bounded as it is by customary norms that regulate and control the entry requirements for community participation, the repertoire content, and the internal hierarchical dynamics, among other things. Participation in the resource‑as‑community is earned by personal face‑to‑face investment of time and self in negotiation with others. For a further discussion of “public domain” see Litman (1990), Frow (1997), and Boyle (1996).

5. “In effect, public spaces help provide the glue for genuine community. Not only do they provide a form of refuge for community members and link them together in informal, relaxed settings, but the public spaces, if carefully situated, physically and symbolically link people together. When public spaces function effectively, they overlap and reinforce the patterns of interaction that occur in the broader community and help define community boundaries”(Freie 1998:59).

6. See Fairbairn (1993).

7. See Malcolm (1998).

8. “Third Spaces, as discussed by Oldenburg (1989), are simply the informal gathering places for people beyond the family and work. They include cafes, pubs, corner stores, pool halls, coffee shops, barbershops, parks, and other hangouts. They are oriented primarily for conversation and free play. They have been typically modest, inexpensive and small, where people met spontaneously to entertain each other without hidden agendas or clearly defined purposes” (Freie 1998:50).

9. The following description of musical practice from Green and Pickering’s article “The Cartography of the Vernacular Milieu” (1987) could easily have been written about the “ses­sion”; . . . performance occurs in small groups and . . . is rooted in shared, immediate, ev­eryday experience. Within the group it can be said that ‘all members know each other, are aware of their common membership, share the same values, have a certain structure of rela­tionships that is stable over time, and interact to achieve some purpose.’ Members of such groups today are of course more articulated and orientated to other external social and cul­tural frameworks of reference than ever before, and this must not be forgotten. Conversely, the decline of the family and community in social life has augmented the value of their sym­bolic celebration. So far as the group’s own dynamics are concerned, the cultural and aes­thetic mode we are discussing differs from mass communication in the following major ways. It is generally two‑way and participatory; it is usually confined to amateur performance, and where professionalism is involved it is generally at a low economic level; it is situation‑specific and contextually local as a communicative event and process, and therefore its impact is only on those involved who at the time of the event . . . bear a low relation to industrial and busi­ness structures; it involves little technological equipment and little division of labor; and as we have already indicated, it gives very low priority to the extraction of surplus value from the labor of its performance. That labor is unproductive in terms of market structures and relations, and thus holds a valid potentiality, at least, of subverting or reversing the alienation of the commodity form” (4).

10. “It’s a painfully familiar scenario: newly returned from one of the music’s distant hot spots, afire with enthusiasm over the brilliant playing you heard there, you make your way to your local session venue on the usual night, determined to give the listeners a serenading they won’t soon forget. But how quickly your mood changes! Within the first ten minutes it be­comes clear that something is amiss. Is it the quality of the playing? Possibly. But that’s only part of the problem. The rest lies in the nature of the session itself. It’s not flowing, it’s not breathing, it has no inner logic or natural momentum. It isn’t bringing out the best in the musicians, nor is it particularly pleasing the listeners.

“This is the moment when you realize that the seeming offhandedness and impromptu grace of a good session are no accident, and that a sense of how to conduct one‑and how to conduct yourself at one‑is not something you’re born with after all, your Irish surname notwithstanding. The fact is, these things must be learned, either by example or by outright instruction”(Foy 1999:10).

11. For a brief discussion of the ambiguities thrown up by professional and amateur sta­tus see Ruth Finnegan (1989).

12. A “tune” here is to be seen as a “complex of features,” a term more commonly used to speak of words, as composite representations of five classes of information: graphic, pho­nological, orthographic, semantic, and syntactic (Gibson and Levin 1975:194). Within the tune, and the word, I would also identify social context and self‑knowledge as feature‑variables, among many others.

13. In fact, to talk of the domain of gift in the context of the writings of Mauss, Sahlins, Strathern, and many more, is to assume the presence of reciprocation. I am attracted, how­ever, in the Irish context, to an article by social anthropologist James Woodburn entitled, “‘Sharing is not a form of exchange’: an analysis of property‑sharing in immediate return hunter­gatherer societies” (1998). In this article Woodburn outlines the sharing practices of the Hadza, which can be transposed fairly successfully into the Irish context. Sharing, as John Price has written, is “the most universal form of human economic behaviour, distinct from and more fundamental than reciprocity” (Cited in Woodburn 1998:50). For Woodburn,

[T]o treat this type of sharing as a form of exchange or reciprocity seriously distorts our understanding of what is going on …. My argument is that to treat such sharing as a form of exchange or reciprocity is inappropriate when donation is obligatory and is discon­nected from the right to receive. To describe such sharing as exchange or reciprocity does not accord with local ideology or local practice among the Hadza and most other hunter-gathering societies with immediate return systems. (1998:50)

Although space does not allow me to elaborate on this point, I hold that the Irish context of musical transmission works very much along the lines of “sharing” as opposed to “reciproca­tion.” An indepth analysis of the ceiling practices in Glassie (1995) would bear this out.

“Sharing here is, as we have seen, not a form of exchange. We must correct our models. Some societies operate with both ideologies and practices which repudiate reciproca­tion. It makes no sense to construct analyses of human social life which are based implicitly or explicitly on the notion of a universal necessity to reciprocate. Of course in day-to-day interaction Hadza do at times reciprocate. They show affection to those who show affection to them. They help those who help them. They are friendly to those who are friendly to them. But in their use of food and of other property, the expected be­havior is nonreciprocal sharing.” (Woodburn 1998: 61)

14. It is also a context that fits into Appadurai’s description of a “tournament of value”: “Tournaments of value are complex periodic events that are removed in some culturally well-defined way from the routines of economic life. Participation in them is likely to be both a privilege of those in power and an instrument of status contests between them. The cur­rency of such tournaments is also likely to be set apart through well-understood cultural dia­critics. Finally, what is at issue in such tournaments is not just status, rank, fame, or reputation of actors, but the disposition of the central tokens of value in the society in question. Finally, though such tournaments of value occur in special times and places, their forms and outcomes are always consequential for the more mundane realities of power and value in ordinary life” (Appadurai 1988:21).

15. “The institution of copyright is of course deeply rooted in our economic system and much of our economy does in turn depend on intellectual property. But, no less important, copyright is deeply rooted in our conception of ourselves as individuals with at least a mod­est grade of singularity, some degree of personality. And it is associated with our sense of privacy and our conviction, at least in theory, that it is essential to limit the power of the state. We are not ready, I think, to give up the sense of who we are” (Rose 1994:142).

16. In dealing with the concept of property I would follow C. M. Hann in saying that, “I argue that the focus on property must not be restricted to the formal legal codes which play a major role in our own society, but must be broadened to include the institutional and cul­tural contexts within which such codes operate. The concept of property has greater salience in capitalist society, but it can never be disembedded from these contexts. There is no anach­ronism in studying property relations in other forms of society where the economic and le­gal systems are very different. If we adopt a broad analytic concept of property in terms of the distribution of social entitlements, then it can be investigated anywhere in time and space” (Hann 1998:7).

17. “For the most part the conceptual analysis of the commons (also described as com­mon property resources, common pool resources and CPRs) has concentrated on the univer­sal principles, conditions or rules that characterise successful regimes and institutions (Ostrom 1990; Bromley 1993; Wade 1987; McGinnis and Ostrom 1993). In the process the analysis has largely circumvented the implications of internal differentiation or asymmetry including the plurality of beliefs, norms and interests involved in interactions between resource users, the effects of complex variations in culture and society, as well as wider aspects of social, polit­ical and economic conflict relating to the commons”(Prakash 1998:168). The vast majority of the literature in this field can be accessed via the International Association for the Study of Common Property, based at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, http://www.indiana.edu/‑iascp. I am grateful to participants of the workshop for their assistance in this work.

18. Already we can see that the description of an open access system pretty much con­forms to the general understanding of the free-for-all concept that embraces the public domain. As has been stated in the literature on the commons, “Many of the misunderstandings found in the literature may be traced to the assumption that common property is the same as open access” (Feeny et al. 1998:79).

19. I would like to make it clear at this point that for me the resource in question may not be “tunes” or “musical works” but the musicking, the amateur, non-commodified musical practice. Speaking of music in terms of a “resource” at all may not be appropriate.

20. “Hence, we define common-property resources as a class of resources for which exclusion is difficult and joint use involves subtractabillty” (Berkes et al. 1989:91).

21. It has been suggested to me that Public Goods might be a better model to use for these purposes.

22. Interestingly, C. A. Gregory (1982) comments that Political Economy, and not neo­classical Economics, is the only field in which we can properly analyze concepts of Gift and Commodity, while Jacques Attali (1985) comments that Political Economy is inadequate when dealing with music.

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Genesis of the Cultural Climate Framework

The Cultural Climate Framework has its origins in my work in the field of ethnomusicology. Between 1996 and 2002 I undertook ethnographic fieldwork to ascertain the systematic social and ethical dynamics in the informal contexts and communities of Irish traditional music. Key to this work was evaluation of the relational implications of increased acquiescence among Irish musicians to the discourses, values, and practices of copyright and intellectual property.

Interdisciplinary theoretical analysis in ethnomusicology, anthropology, sociology, institutional economics, and social psychology led me to develop a general systematic theory for specific practices of ‘enclosure’, that is, an expansionary social dynamic driven by the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty, involving the acclelerative and intensifying commodification of everyday life (see McCann, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2012). ‘Enclosure’ became, in effect, shorthand to speak of unhelpful dynamics of excessive institutionalisation, bureaucratization, or administration within organisations.

In postdoctoral research I built on this ethnographic and theoretical work, turning to sociolinguistic register theory (see, e.g., Halliday 1978; Butler 1999, and many others), affect theory (see, e.g., Brennan 2004, Ahmed 2010, Grossberg 2010 and others), and cultural history (especially Raymond Williams’ work on ‘structures of feeling‘) in order to develop the general framework.

Counterintuitively, the fact that this research originated with a non-organisational focus is what makes it so well suited to the analysis of culture change in organisational dynamics. If the theoretical tools used to analyse culture change in organisations are forged in the empirical analysis of organisations, then the results will likely be primarily descriptive in character. Description tends to be of limited operational efficacy in the necessarily comparative analysis of cultural climate and of little guidance in trying to understand our own participation in the enactment of culture change.

Because all organisations rely on a subsystem of substantially informal human relationships and interactions, any effective model of culture change in organisations needs to be based on principles that are also inclusive of governing dynamics of attitude, behaviour, and social interaction in explicitly non-organisational culture. Indeed, I would argue that the spectrum of less formal qualities of relationship in an organisation are the very heart of possibility in culture change. You cannot construct a clear roadmap for culture change when they are excluded, or even marginalised, in the model being used.

http://www.anthonymccann.com

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Jean Ure and Jeffrey Ellis. “Register in Descriptive Linguistics and Linguistic Sociology.” In Issues in Sociolinguistics. Oscar Uribe-Villegas, ed. The Hague, Paris, New York: Mouton Publishers, 1977. 197-243.

Teun A. van Dijk. 2009. Society and Discourse: how social contexts influence text and talk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Raymond Williams. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press
—. 1979. Politics and Letters. New York: Schoken Books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cultural priming, the “adjacent probable”, and changing the cultural equation

Within any particular culture, prolonged participation in the cultural climate has a tendency to prime people to reproduce the dynamics of that climate (either in that culture or upon having moved to another). When a cultural climate is dominated by the dynamics of enclosure this is one of the primary contributing factors in the acclerative intensification of enclosure. While it is possible to overcome this priming to a greater or lesser extent, for the most part in cultural priming people turn towards what I call “the adjacent probable.”

I have developed the term “adjacent probable” from the term “adjacent possible” in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex systems researcher. As reported by Stephen Johnson (2010), Kauffman’s work on evolution and self- organisation gave rise to the notion of “the adjacent possible”. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility: “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field …. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary things, but only certain changes can happen.”(Johnson 2010, p. 30-31).

In the context of my Cultural Climate Framework, the adjacent probable tells us is that at any moment we are capable of many things, but we tend to reach for architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that are already dominant in the cultural climate we inhabit. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses in a particular situation, both tacit and explicit, that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant expectations in the cultural climate.

Importantly, the gravities of the adjacent probable within enclosing organisational environments are much stronger on account of the high directivity of the corresponding cultural climate. In the context of culture change interventions within cultural climates of organisational enclosure, this strong tendency to default to the adjacent probable leads to what I call “cultural feedback”. This is when we systematically reinforce and recreate the enclosing dynamics we are seeking to change, despite (or often because of) our best intentions. What seems like a good and very fresh idea at the time often ends up having very similar consequences to the thing you are trying to avoid. The “adjacent probables” of goal-driven and profit-driven organisational or institutional practice are what take their toll on employee engagement, organisational direction, and the health of the organisation’s future. They strain the social contract by limiting the expectations and quality of the social contract. If defaulting to the adjacent probable runs the risk of doubling us back into the dynamics of enclosure, the need for helpful culture change interventions invites us to challenge the priming logics of the cultural climate within the situation and within ourselves and to reach for the “adjacent unlikely” that will change the cultural equation.

Reference

Stephen Johnson. 2010. Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of innovation. London: Allen Lane.

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The Elimination of Uncertainty: the engine of enclosure

The elimination of uncertainty ethos is what drives the cancer of “enclosure” at the heart of organisational practice. Enclosure is the accelerative and intensifying process in play when good organisations go bad and when bad organisations get worse. When left unchallenged, enclosure spreads, it deepens, and it corrodes the core cultural supports of your organisation, among them productivity, employee engagement, creativity, and trust. When this happens, it is “business as usual” that makes the unhelpful difference. Following the principles of the Cultural Climate Framework, an enclosing cultural climate comes with what I call the Organisational Enclosure Triad – an environment saturated with the elimination of uncertainty ethos tends also to be characterized by chronic heightened intensity, and by chronic heightened directivity. While there are many more features of enclosing cultural climates, these are the core drivers of unhelpful change within an organisational culture. These features, more than any others, are what will most affect the relational climate of the organisation.

One the difficulties within a business environment is that the three elements of the organisational enclosure triad are frequently to be found in the heart of workaday orthodoxy in accepted business practice. The logics of the triad are embedded within the language, habits, norms, and rules of much standard and recommended business practice. The challenge isn’t eliminating the presence of these elements, but in minimising their impact within the workplace.

It is important to note that while the “elimination” of uncertainty is to be avoided, the reduction of uncertainty is to be welcomed. Similarly, while chronic heightened intensity is to be avoided, occasional intensity at appropriate times is to be welcomed. And while chronic heightened directivity could lead to all sorts of problems, occasional directive strategic interventions might sometimes be very appropriate. It’s about avoiding the extremes of elimination, intensity, and directivity without throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Organisational Enclosure Triad redux

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“Culture”

“Culture” can be a very confusing term. People use the term in so many ways. At its most empty and rhetorical, “culture” can be used as a catch-all term to express positivity, and aspiration. At its most specific, “culture” can mean the everyday details of our lives, down to the clothes we wear and the food we eat. In the spaces in between, the meaning of “culture” tends to rely heavily on the perspective of the person speaking, and on the richness of their imagination or the restrictions of their personal or political agenda.

For me, “culture” refers very simply to what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. This is deliberately broad – it is important to not automatically exclude anything from our understanding of culture as a general concept. This then provides a comparative baseline, against which it is possible to make sense of the diverse meanings and rhetorics of the term. To what extent does someone’s meaning of “culture” diverge from this broad sense of it? Is a particular understanding of “culture” only limited to what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in particular classes, groups, places, or artistic forms? Thinking about it all in this way can highlight prejudices, biases, exclusions, politics of distinction, elitism, and sectarianism.

To speak of “an organisational culture”, though, is to be very specific. For me, it is to speak of “what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in a particular organisation (specified by location(s) over a designated time)“. This first and foremost invites:

Inclusivity: everyone in an organisation contributes to and is affected by the culture of an organisation, from the CEO to the janitors;

Transparency: this understanding of organisational culture leaves nowhere to hide – that’s the point;

Discernment: to be this inclusive calls for a deeper discernment of what is actually going on within an organisation (see the earlier post on the 8 first principles of culture change);

Legacy: “culture” here involves an awareness of what has happened before (our past legacies), as well as what is still to happen (our future legacies), connecting the past to the future;

Anticipation:  this is a future-oriented notion of culture, an invitation to awareness of our own participation in the cultural future of the organisation.

Once we ally the notion of “culture” to the discernment and evaluation of the specifics of power, effect, and circumstance it becomes helpful to speak in terms of “cultural climate”, and, by extension, “culture change”.

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Cultural Climate and Culture Change

Cultural climate is the key driver of behaviour and expectations within organisations.

The most important dimension of an organizational culture might be characterised as its “cultural climate”, or, in shorthand, the personality of an organization. The cultures of organizations differ in the way that each person has a different personality, that is, a dynamic pattern of variation in attitude, behaviour, and social interaction that tends to be consistent over long periods. The better you understand the personality of your organization, the better you will be able to respond to the challenges it faces.

To speak of “a cultural climate”, then, is to speak of the dispositional quality of a particular organisational culture, considered in comparison to other organisational cultures or to other times or places within the same organisation. In colloquial terms, the cultural climate of an organisation here means, “what has tended to happen, what tends to happen, and what will tend to happen in a particular organisation (specified by location(s) over a designated time).

“Culture change” is the process of actively intervening to change the cultural climate of an organisation, and supporting that process by way of due diligence, due patience, and due care. To effect a dispositional shift in the cultural climate of an organisation takes time. It also takes sensitive leadership. Until the cultural climate, the personality, of the organisation changes, nothing substantially changes.

The notion of change can be thrown around meaninglessly so that change becomes a welcome, unconditional good, and eternally necessary. Sometimes the term is used as if change is something other than that which ordinarily happens – change becomes rare and difficult to achieve, making it the sacred preserve of the creative few. In the other extreme, change can be considered ever-present, constant flux inescapable; life becomes so saturated with change and impermanence that little we can do truly makes a difference. Change becomes more meaningful when it is thought of as ordinary, possible, and available in everything we do.

Culture change is one of the more radical approaches you can choose to change your organization. Culture change involves identifying, evaluating, and actively changing the personality or personality traits of your organisation so that they better suit the aims, aspirations, and potential of your company, and so they better support the potential and possibilities of everyone in the organisation. At its best, organisational culture change positively affects productivity, innovation, sustainability, and emotional health simultaneously.

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