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  • Public Domains:Engaging Iraq Through Experimental Digitalities
  • Patricia R. Zimmermann (bio)

Public Domains

Public domain, or PD, crosses through the new media ecology—works for which copyright has either expired or never existed. An archive with no doors and no rules, public domain presents the open text that can commingle with other texts. Public domain means works exempt from proprietary interests that form our common aesthetic, cultural and intellectual landscape.1 This category is not stable, of course: works change their passport status and migrate from proprietary to public domain continually, rapidly, and fluidly. Nor is this category universal, as public domain often implies countries of the global north that comply with the Berne Conventions.

The word domain connotes the Internet, a virtual and often imaginary space where cyberactivity coagulates, convenes, coalesces. However, in this quest for free culture unfettered by capitalist exchange and intellectual property lawyers, hackers, remixers, copyright pirates, mash-uppers, clubbers, and found-footage artists—often white male cybercowboys hacking and whacking on their iMacs and iPods—focus on the image, fetishizing and eroticizing its acquisition and capture as though it were an illicit drug like crystal meth that can get you high and keep you high.2

In this time of war and empire, however, the term public domain needs a new definition, one that is more plural and beyond an exclusive focus on the fixity of the image and the artifact. It needs a definition that moves into transitional zones and provisional places that are created, then interrupt and rewire. A new conception of public domains must consider a new kind of media politics: it must create places where publics can emerge. Public [End Page 66] domains materialize new publics and actualize new spaces. Some forms of new media have circumvented the theatrical setting and instead adopted a strategy of infiltration into consumer-grade technologies to produce critiques of the war on terror and how it infiltrates everyday life. For example, an online satirical game called Airport Security asks the player to inspect airline passengers and luggage for forbidden items like toothpaste and hair gel, but the list changes every moment, making it difficult to detect contraband. Some of the items on the prohibited list include pants and hummus. The game was developed in response to the Fall 2006 U.S. Security Agency's change in policies regarding what could be brought on to flights, and is downloadable for cell phones (

Public domains activate new ways of thinking, acting, and connecting with others.3 Empire and war no longer exert power solely through force or embedded reporters or press restrictions. They enact and inscribe power through the production of panic: they replace the freedom of messy interaction implied in the inventive ideas and concrete practices of public domains with a systematic incarceration of imagination and mobility. Surveillance, border patrols, passports, data mining, packet sniffing, learning objectives, teaching outcomes, pay-per-view, news blackouts, silence. Empire and war no longer just provide a field of operations for achieving national objectives. They are now in the manufacturing business. They produce endless product lines of panic, amnesia, and anaesthesia4 and have migrated into the business of chaos and incomprehensibility. As a result, the classical construct of the public sphere—a place for the open discussion of ideas among equals to create and sustain civil society—has become a fantasy, a chimera, a collective hallucination concocted by theory to enforce the science fiction of democracy. It does not, in the age of empire and war, exist a priori, waiting like a bar at Club Med or a pool at a five-star hotel in Kuwait for us to dip into. Rather, this period of empire and war, combined with the current conditions of massive media mergers, produces blindness. This political economy of blindness renders the war in Iraq opaque, unclear, remote, phantasmatic. As a result, the representations and iterations of the war are trapped within a dangerous contradiction: the deliberate construction of invisibility and the pointed production of endless visibility in the form of images of soldiers and IEDs. Therefore, we must consider how to produce, together, public domains. Public...


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pp. 66-83
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