Am I permitted to write? The chmod – 777 command opens all files and directories to the world. Set permissions to 777 and anyone can call the system to read, write, and execute.
Did you chmod -777? Do you permit me to, do you give permission? To write it to have permission, and this is true for every page and line and word and space. Permission is given for all writing on the net, from email to web pages. My writing is the unfolding and overflowing of your permission. I thank you, I celebrate you, I revel in you, but I also revile you, denigrate you, turn away. Why must I ask for permission to write? Writing only with your permission, I read you in every space and every word and every line and every page. This is the case even when you did not explicitly give your permission. Permission is withdrawn. I cannot be sure that I am permitted to write. I write in hope of your permission. I read your permission. I imagine that you give it and so I am able to write.
Why are discussions of digital writing not devoted to permission? Is this not the fundamental horizon of our writing? Digital writing, as digital and as writing, must be approached in this way. Or for that matter, why do we not discuss other aspects of our frantic, intense, overwhelming writing the net? We think reading is taking in of marks on a technologically enframed surface. Possibly we understand an author at the end of a circuit creating these surfaces and marks. The author is a function in the circuit, as is the text. We discuss links and Flash technique, generative and dynamic writing, form and narrative voice in virtual environments, and so on. Do not all these topics close down the netting of the subject in writing? Or rather, we take for granted the subject that enunciates and expresses on the net because this granting is necessary to our conceptual field of writing, held together as it is by instrumental topics, such as those in the list above. (I must say the only site I find discussing such topics is Alan Sondheim’s Internet Text, as ever the only philosophy of the net.)
Writers: is this the case? Do we not write because of compulsion, desire, passion? And also, we write through inertia, fatigue, anxiety? All these worldly orientations are missing from discussion of digital writing, but they are not missing from writing the net. Who does not feel the weight of fatigue in connection delays on the web, or deep anxiety at lags in email communications? These are inner orientations, part of one’s own disposition in relation to a body that inhabits the web intensely yet absently.
I will write of and with your permission.
What is chmod and what are permissions? The first 1971 implementation of UNIX included the chmod command. File permissions were a basic feature of UNIX and continue in all subsequent *NIX systems (POSIX, LINUX, etc.). Other file systems adopt related permission system. Web sites typically run on a UNIX-like system. They utilize htaccess and similar requirements to set permissions. Some file systems, such the Macintosh, refer to “privileges” rather than permissions. The semantics are similar, although “privilege” has a much more specific legal history as the designation of an individual’s entitlement granted by a government. By contrast, “permission” is traceable to individual intentional acts of granting a special access or right, an exception not covered by the generalized legal notion of universal rights. Is it any surprise that permission is also etymologically related to mission, to journey, to quest? Permission grants an opening to narrative. There is always a subject and a drama of permission.
Think of Robert Duncan describing the “opening of the field” as “a place of first permission.” Chmod opens and operates on a space of permission: the file system. A file system is built around methods for storing and organizing files, typically within directories. It starts from a directory as a file that contains the names of files within the directory, including itself. “The most important job of UNIX is to provide a file system,” write Ritchie and Thompson, as they described and created the operating system. They add: “A directory behaves like an ordinary file except that it cannot be written on by unprivileged programs, so the system controls the contents of directories.” Every space on the system is folded within itself, according to permissions. By default chmod is applied to a directory and only secondarily to files. Every directory and every file is a space of permission first, and only then a writeable or readable technical feature within the apparatus.
Chmod sets permissions to read, write, and execute directories and files within a directory. To write. To create a file, to edit it, to delete it. A file is written only if permission is given. Web pages are no different. Every file is subject to permission. To read. To show the contents of a file, to see the name. A file is read only if permission is given. To execute. To execute a file. To run a program. A file is executed only if permission is given. What if we approached digital writing in this way? What if we inquired into the permissions of each digital “writer” and “reading” and “text”?
Permission is an existential mode, a way of being for directories and files. It is often described through the “symbolic notation” of r/w/x. Permission to read (r) the file; permission to write (w) (or edit, create, re-name the file); permission to execute (x) the file. These characters name the permission given. Adding or creating files in a directory – permission to write – is adding names to a directory listing. Write (w) is permission to write names. The absence of a character or a dash (-) indicates a void, without permission. Symbolic notation writes (notates) the topology of permissions in the space of files and directories. It writes the shape of entities inhabit within that space. Is this writing not a minimal level of digital poetics? Instead of symbolic notation, chmod can also use octal notation to describe permissions. Octal notation uses base 8 numbers, typically in a string of three or four digits, allowing the precise state of permission to be expressed in a single number, such as 777. (A common joke is the octal notation for the symbolic setting -rw-rw-rw-“: 666 or “Permissions of the Beast.”)
What are we permitted? Permission is given to treat digital objects – files, directories – as textual objects to be written and read. Their qualities as object are textual because of this permission and do not preexist it. I cannot write or read a file unless I am permitted. The file becomes textual through permission that permits the objects to be “like a language.” Yet the levels of permission described by symbolic or octal notation are not to be understood as instrumental access to inscribe and to read, in the sense that handing a pen and paper to someone grants direct access to writing instruments. Technically, permissions give the right to use a “system call” on the file or directory covered by the permission. The system call instructs UNIX to make an edit or allow reading or execute a file. Not permission to write or read or execute, but permission to instruct the operating system to operate on files and directories. “I am a writer” or “I am a reader” means I am permitted to call on the system to write or read in my place. The system is the horizon of actions and meaning. Digital writers do not write but call on the system to do it for them.
The chmod and related chown command means files are assigned. The commands are acts of constitution. Every file is constituted as a file through permission and ownership. If the file is owned and its existence is formed through permission, does this not fit the conditions of intellectual property? If to create a file is to create intellectual property, is a file an act of expression? Think here of Cornelia Vismann’s fascinating description of the administrative logic of files. Files are always a problem of processing and recording as much as reading. Institutional power transcends or exceeds the files.
But what if permission were a struggle? What if we refuse it when it is given, or take what is not offered? To invent permission: what if this were the condition of digital poetics?