Notes on 120days of *buntu

Geoff Cox

120days of *buntu is a project by Gordan Savičić, and Danja Vasiliev, that proposes 120 modified Ubuntu Operating Systems. Available at http://120buntu.com/

What kind of transgressions are imagined in the naming of this project? The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism, written by Donatien Alphonse François (aka Marquis de Sade) in 1785, famously depicts scenes of sexual violence and sadism. In what ways might the alternative operating systems offered here be transgressive in line with de Sade’s understanding of the liberation of desire, and thereby offer speculation on how libertarian attitudes might exceed the masochistic desires of free/libre software development? The connection is not so strange as it first appears. Indeed software, like language in general, is bound to the constitution of subjectivity as an act of violence at source (as with the Althusserian call to order). In other words, violence is always embodied in source code: it symbolises and enacts violence on the thing and executes it. Hence the user is necessarily violated by the operating system (OS) they use. It ab/uses them, not the other way around.

Perversion

With Ubuntu as object of choice (the popular end of free/open source software development), the OS treads a fine line between usability and the replication of proprietary and normative forms. This identifies one of the paradoxes of free software development more generally: its ready recuperation, and that its very success is part of the problem. Any related notion of freedom stands for a paradoxical belief in open standards and at the same time the means to capitalise on sharing and free labour. Moreover, radical sharing communities that have emerged through projects like GNU/Linux are not simply alternatives to capitalism but also new forms that express its unerring ability to absorb social innovation and pervert it; capturing critique, as well as the desire and imagination invested in it in the first place. Perhaps this is also what happened to some extent when Ars Electronica decided, in 1999, to award its Golden Nica not to an artwork but to the Linux operating system and in this way unwittingly absorbed it into instrumentalised understandings of creativity (exemplified by the giving of awards). [Further irony is added by 120days receiving a Honorary Mention at Prix Ars in 2011.]

Excess

So is the project not simply doomed to failure, especially given that alternative technical systems and creative activities once released are soon after effectively absorbed by free market ideology? Has it also not become an orthodoxy these days for cultural producers to work “operatively” at the level of the apparatus like technicians or engineers (as Benjamin recommended in his “The Author as Producer” of 1934; or Savičić and Vasiliev’s own “The Manifesto for Critical Engineering” of 2011)? What is the effect of the intervention here in terms of operating systems more broadly; of art, of politics, of the body, and so on? By taking de Sade as inspiration, something rather different seems to be exposed, more in the realm of excess where useless production becomes a preferred technique to escape the determination of existing imperatives of capitalism (Bataille). Something else is also revealed, in that political struggle is characterised between operating systems for liberating desire and mechanisms of control over the imaginary (Berardi). Perhaps 120days of *buntu manages to reactivate excess, desire and imagination in these ways, thus opening up new possibilities for socio-technical transgression.

 

Works cited:

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation.” Mapping Ideology. Ed. Slavoj Žižek. London: Verso, 1997. 100-140. Print.

Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: Volume 1. New York: Zone Books, 1991. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Author as Producer.” Selected Writings: Volume 2, 1927-1934. Eds.Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland & Gary Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1999. Print.

Berardi, Franco ‘Bifo’. Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the pathologies of the post-alpha generation. London: Minor Compositions, 2009. Print.

“Linux Torvalds Wins Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica.” Linux Today. Web. 19. Dec. 2011. <http://www.linuxtoday.com/news_story.php3?ltsn=1999-05-29-003-05-PS>.

Oliver, Julian, Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev. The Critical Engineering Manifesto. 2011. Web. 19. Dec. 2011. <http://criticalengineering.org/>

de Sade, Marquis. The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings. New York: Grove Press, 1994. Print.

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