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Rhetorical Virtues: Property, Speech, and the Commons on the World-Wide Web
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Anthropological Quarterly 77.3 (2004) 559-574



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Rhetorical Virtues:

Property, Speech, and the Commons on the World-Wide Web

York University
Wilfred Laurier University

Property, Propriety, and Appropriation

Our comments extend our mutual scholarly inter est in the articulation of discourses of property in contemporary capitalist culture and how these are deployed in the narrative conjuring of capital as "salvific" moral virtue in global neoliberalism (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001). We are interested in how narratives of property and propriety, ownership, and entitlement come to be embodied and performed as moral stories in digital environments (Coombe and Herman 2000, Coombe and Herman 2001). As Marx argued "capital" is a "very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical and theological niceties" (Marx 1976[1867]:163). Capital is strange for Marx because it can apparently morph into so many different forms—as commodity, as debt, as labor, as knowledge, as brand image, and, underlying these, money as the universal, impersonal standard of value that makes these commensurable. Yet these strange and magical qualities of capital rest upon a foundation of metaphysics and theology—a particular set of ethical values that construe lifeworlds into monetary forms and human beings into autonomous individuals. [End Page 559]

We offer here a small slice of our ongoing work on the rhetorics of intellectual property in the age of digital media and information-based capitalism.1 We use rhetoric in the strong, Nietzschian sense of the term—as the "act of ordering the chaos of life" (Witson and Poulakis 1993:16). In this reading, rhetoric is a social and material practice of the pragmatics of power that punctuates the world with meaning and thereby renders social action possible. To use Barbara Biesecker's words, "it is in rhetoric that the social takes place" (Biesecker 1997:50). Indeed, it is rhetoric that makes the social a place of meaningful habitation. We do not mean "rhetoric" in the vernacular, pejorative sense as when someone says, "Oh, that's just mere rhetoric," thereby connoting a fount of frothy words without real consequence (McGuigan 2003:1); nor do we restrict it to discourse with persuasive force or intent.

One of our favorite moments in teaching is when we ask students to explain what the word "property" means. Given that the word is a fixture of our everyday language and speech, students are remarkably perplexed when this question is posed. Their reticence to give voice to their understanding of property clearly doesn't have to do with their lack of knowledge of the word or the concept. Rather, it is rooted in the seeming obviousness of the answer. "Property," one student will venture after an uncomfortably long silence, "is when I own something." This rhetorical statement is what legal scholar Jack Balkin (1998) calls a hegemonic meme in an argument that transports the concept of the meme from evolutionary biology to a critique of legal and political ideology. In brief, a meme is an idea or rhetorical construct—a "packet" of coherent information—that is passed on from generation to generation through the cultural transmission of communication, imitation, and replication called memesis (which should not be confused with the anthropological concept of mimesis). Cultures (Balkin shares none of the anthropologist's qualms about using the term as a noun) integrate such memes into quotidian ideologies because of their pragmatic utility in making sense of the world and allowing human groups to adapt to changing social environments. Through the memetic process of informational replication, to paraphrase Balkin, human beings become information made flesh.

We have many reservations about Balkin's evolutionary theory of ideology. Aside from the conceptual overlay of evolutionary biology and the language and tropes of information science and technoculture, there is not much in what Balkin has to say that hasn't already been said by Gramsci, Stuart Hall, Karl Mannheim, Berger and Luckmann, Foucault (especially), and even Marx himself. But the idea that the social power of ideology resides in its corporealization, [End Page 560] in how it is embodied and...