ArticlesDatacide 13

Wikipedia – A Vernacular Encyclopedia (Datacide Version)

Wikipedia evolved from a different project Nupedia which focused on engaging with highly qualified academics who, it was hoped, would apply their scholarship to the development of an online encyclopedia. However, right at the beginning of this project Wikipedia was set up as a piece of cyberspace where people could experiment and develop material for the main project . . . but the open framework of Wikipedia meant that it attracted a much broader range of contributors. Something fell into place as the level of participation enabled a viable form of crowd-sourcing to emerge. Soon the vernacular offshoot overshadowed what had been considered the main project. (For more info see HERE).

The Reformation Version of the Vernacular

I am using the term “vernacular” in order to contextualise various phenomena which have been described as the “knowledge revolution”, the “information revolution” or the “digital revolution” in a broader historical framework. Whereas the new cyber-entrepreneurs wish to stress how their technological innovations are new!-new!-new!, I look at the impact of new cyber-technologies principally in terms of European religious reformation and the advent of the book.

Max Weber pointed out some time ago in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism how capitalism is linked to the development of reading. Here he reflects on Luther’s notion of beruf, or calling, and focuses on the importance of the book. This view was then turned inside out by Marshall McLuhan, who identifies technology as the motor of social change. The predictive quality of his books The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964) – which in many ways foresaw the culture of the internet – make his view quite seductive. And it is more than understandable that such a fetishised view of technology should prove attractive to the cyber-entrepreneurs: the gleaming new commodities magically transform society, through a sleight of hand where the role of human beings as human actors has been replaced by simulacra, by automatons.

 However, by shifting our attention from McLuhan’s distinction between orality and the written word to the development of vernacular literature – i.e. books written in the language of everyday life – a different picture emerges. We then have an interplay between the reflective consciousness of everyday life and the more abstracted world of the book. This led to a cognitive shift. And as befitting the religious world of medieval Europe, it is the translation of the bible into the “mother tongues” of peoples across Europe which characterises this change. The institutionalised structures of the church found it hard to contain the irruption of reading which spread across northern Europe. Even the imposition of terrifying ordeals – such asbeing burnt alive – did not suppress this movement. On the contrary this persecution provided a new selection of more immediate protestant martyrs, who ousted the mythologised saints from the popular consciousness.

However, Ivan Illich is keen to make a political distinction between “mother tongue” and the vernacular when he discusses how Spanish monks, led by Antonio de Nebrija, could become a new class of “letrado” – the learned – who would use Castilian to strengthen the power of the elite. When he presented a copy of his Spanish grammar to Isabella I of Castile, unsurprisingly she asked why she would need such a book as she already new Spanish. “Majesty, the language is the instrument of the empire”. The Bishop of Avila backed up this argument: “Soon Your Majesty will have placed her yoke upon many barbarians who speak outlandish tongues. By this, your victory, these people shall stand in a new need; the need for the laws the victor owes to the vanquished, and the need for the language we shall bring with us.” Illich contrasts “mother tongue” as a mode of centralized state produced culture with the vernacular:

We need a simple adjective to name those acts of competence, lust, or concern that we want to defend from measurement or manipulation by Chicago Boys and Socialist Commissars. The term must be broad enough to fit the preparation of food and the shaping of language, childbirth, and recreation, without implying either a privatized activity akin to the housework of modern women, a hobby or an irrational and primitive procedure. Such an adjective is not at hand. But vernacular might serve. By speaking about vernacular language and the possibility of its recuperation, I am trying to bring into awareness and discussion the existence of a vernacular mode of being, doing, and making that in a desirable future society might again expand in all aspects of life.”

(‘Vernacular Values’ published in CoEvolution Quarterly 1980, available HERE)

 This vernacular culture had existed in England, for example, when such groups as the Lollards passed around amongst themselves handwritten copies of extracts of the bible before Gutenberg was born. It was these networks of vernacular learning which helped create the social links which enabled the Peasants Revolt. The technology did not prompt the social change, but was developed so as to facilitate it. The printing press and the development of a mass market into which the thousands of copies of books could be poured was a subsequent development based on this vernacular culture. This popular movement had developed fibre-space as an area for social interaction. A new class of entrepreneurs were able to move in creating a model of what capitalism would soon become. This can be compared with Silicon Valley and how it sprang from the mixture of counter-culture and radical politics of the sixties. And the roots of this can be found in the practices of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Twentieth Century Version of the Vernacular

But first let us go back to 1938, when CLR James, an erstwhile Trotskyist, went to visit his leader in Mexico. This was shortly before the former leader of the Red Army was murdered by one of his Bolshevik rivals, Stalin. Confronting Trotsky in his own parlour, he explained that having cohorts of party activists to inculcate the party-line into the African-American masses was beside the point – a reversed political process was required: a political organisation which drew its inspiration from how the African-American masses responded to their oppression was what was needed.

But when Trotsky dismissed this idea, it was not because he was unfamiliar with such a concept. In fact, he was all too familiar with it. When Lenin founded the Bolshevik faction of Russian Social Democracy, it was built around controlling the party presses and the constitution of different editorial boards. In this way the views and decisions of the central bodies of the party could be disseminated to . . . a network of self-educational groups from which the party hoped to draw recruits who would act in a corporate way.

 However, there was another faction within the Bolshevik Party, grouped around the novelist Maxim Gorky who had a completely different view. Gorky was to remain a central figure within Russian plebeian culture, even though Lenin emerged from his shadow to eventually outshine him. However, Gorky was more like a rock star: his popular success as a writer had made him self-sufficient – in fact he was a major fundraiser for the Bolsheviks, touring America until the discovery that he was not married to his female companion led to his trip being cancelled.

The Vpered tendency was centred around his villa on the island of Capri. Here they outlined what they hoped to achieve. They too wanted to build on the experience of the study circles, the network of self-educational groups which Lenin hoped to exploit. But Lenin’s approach was about creating a modern version of Nebrija’s letrado, with a new orthodoxy subsequently dubbed Marxism-Leninism after his death. Rather than relying on a particular language, Marxism-Leninism offered a means of constructing constrained ways of thinking which could be expressed in any language. Gorky and co. were more interested in an open ended approach which Gorky sketched out with the school-teacher and his uncle in his novel The Confession. This book outlined the approach of what Lenin sneeringly called the “God-builders”: it offended Lenin’s militant atheism. In fact, it extolled the virtues of the peasantry, a class Lenin wanted to see expropriated and ruined by the emerging industrial proletariat.

However, the approach of Vpered was more consistent with other peasant movements: The Lollards had created a vernacular learning environment offering both a social and cognitive environment where by the peasantry could develop the capacity to challenge the feudal classes. The network of study groups – whether focusing on discussing overtly political topics or not – had proven very effective during the 1905 revolution. Rather than replacing this network with a top-down party structure, the Vpered group wanted to develop the educational depth of this network, so that the emergent working class could effectively take over the management of production. They saw the creation of a “Workers Encyclopedia” – basically an encyclopedia that anyone can edit – as an important tool for this.

 The collapse of the Vpered group also arose from problems with sexual politics. The three men who led the group were Alexander Bogdanov, Anatoly Lunacharsky and Gorky himself. Lunacharsky was married to Anna Malinovkay, Bogdanov’s sister. However, when she started having an affair with Gorky the group ceased to function as a political entity. Bogdanov and Lunacharsky remained the most prominent “Russian Machists” who Lenin denounced in Materialism and Empirico Criticism (1908). A good introduction to this debate is Anton Pannekoek’s Lenin as Philosopher (1938). This account is highly critical of Lenin, and makes a distinction between Middle-class philosophy where the source of knowledge is sought in personal meditation and Marxism which finds it in social labour:

All consciousness, all spiritual life of man, even of the most lonely hermit, is a collective product, has been made and shaped by the working community of mankind. Though in the form of personal consciousness — because man is a biological individual — it can exist only as part of the whole. People can have experiences only as social beings; though the contents are personally different, in their essence experiences are super-personal, society being their self-evident basis. Thus the objective world of phenomena which logical thought constructs out of the data of experience, is first and foremost, by its origin already, collective experience of mankind.”

This approach to knowledge, for Bogdanov at any rate, was rooted in his experiences in a workers study circle that he became involved in Tula Russia – following his participation in a student demonstration in Moscow, he was exiled there for five years before he could renew his studies to become a medical doctor. In terms of his approach to learning environments, it was from this experience of proletarian culture that he drew on when in later years he became involved in the creation of the Proletarian University following the Russian Revolution of 1917. While Lunacharsky had rejoined the Bolsheviks, becoming Minister of Education, Bogdanov’s involvement with the Proletarian University and Proletkult existed outside both the state and the Bolshevik Party institutions. Although these were bastions of independent thought, they eventually succumbed to the advances of the new ideology: Marxism Leninism.

 Whether from the perspective of the Russian study circles, or the spontaneous bible reading groups which sprung up during the reformation, there is a shared theme of knowledge production being a shared process which when taken up by the working classes proves to be profoundly unsettling for the ruling elites, and those who manage the organisations set up to control and constrain the development and diffusion of knowledge amongst those they exploit.

Well Dug, Old Mole

When CLR James debated with Trotsky in his Mexican parlour, the old Bolshevik was familiar with a line of thought which had been involved in suppressing, long before he and his ilk were in turn repressed themselves. James returned to the USA where he participated with Raya Dunayevskaya with a break away from the Trotskyist movement. His current was particularly characterised by the way they combined practical political work in the factories with Hegelian Marxism. With the publication of his Notes on Dialectics published in 1980, over 30 years had passed since it was written and circulated amongst study circles in the USA.

 CLR James’ insight into the role of the African American experience providing a learning environment for radicals in the US reached fruition during the Civil Rights Movement. The Freedom Riders of 1961 paired up Black and White activists who rode on interstate busses into those states which enforced segregation, in order to challenge a practice which had been declared illegal by the United States Supreme Court. Tom Hayden, the architect of the Port Huron Statement (1962), was one of these Freedom Riders, and when reflecting about his experiences 50 years later, he stressed the importance of this experience. Likewise, Mario Savio, one of the spokespersons of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (1964), was dramatically transformed by his experiences working with the share croppers in the Deep South.

James worked towards a materialist understanding of Hegel from a working class perspective, and so in this context we can understand Hegel’s passage where he evokes Shakespeare’s archetype of the “old mole”:

 What we pass in rapid review when we recall it, stretched itself out in reality to this great length of time. For in this lengthened period, the Notion of Spirit, invested with its entire concrete development, its external subsistence, its wealth, is striving to bring spirit to perfection, to make progress itself and to develop from spirit. It goes ever on and on, because spirit is progress alone. Spirit often seems to have forgotten and lost itself, but inwardly opposed to itself, it is inwardly working ever forward (as when Hamlet says of the ghost of his father, “Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the ground so fast?”) until grown strong in itself it bursts asunder the crust of earth which divided it from the sun, its Notion, so that the earth crumbles away. At such a time, when the encircling crust, like a soulless decaying tenement, crumbles away, and spirit displays itself arrayed in new youth, the seven league boots are at length adopted. This work of the spirit to know itself, this activity to find itself, is the life of the spirit and the spirit itself. Its result is the Notion which it takes up of itself; the history of philosophy is a revelation of what has been the aim of spirit throughout its history; it is therefore the world’s history in its innermost signification.”

(Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 1805-6, available HERE ).

Indeed so, and James’ understanding of the notion of African-American experience did indeed burst asunder the crust of earth which divided it from the sun, albeit thirty years after his chat with Trotsky. And when it burst through, it had a contagious effect on the wave of student radicalism that spread through the USA, and had a broader impact on the world. Hayden’s ‘Port Huron Statement’ became a manifesto for the Students for A Democratic Society, who soon started finding practical methods to implement their ideas. Free Universities emerged in several different places across the states, and the Anti-University of London was another version, one in which CLR James himself participated. In California, the Midpeninsular Free University became an area where the hippy counterculture and radical pedagogy existed side by side. It played a major role in the development of the vernacular Homebrew Computer Club, where the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley first rubbed shoulders.

The Wikipedia Version of the Vernacular

Wikipedia has emerged as the sixth most popular website on the internet – measured in terms of number of hits from different access points, currently running around 500 million different users a month. It kind of came about by accident. It did not arise from any identification with the concept of a “Workers’ Encyclopedia” advanced by Russian Social Democracy, on the contrary, the key discussions arose from people who had met each other on-line discussing the philosophy of the Russian-American proponent of capitalism, Ayn Rand. Nor were its originators motivated by Illich’s promotion of the term “vernacular”. On the contrary, Wikipedia was an accidental consequence of Nupedia, which could be better characterised as a project for digital Letrados. Nevertheless, it embodies Illich’s vernacular values outlined in the quote above. The Wikipedia version of the vernacular emerged from the potential created by the wiki-platform to allow a digital commons to assert itself in cyberspace.

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