The printed institution of intellectual property holds that works cannot be reproduced “without prior written permission” (as the legalese runs). The printed work at hand is always documentary evidence of the printer’s permission for that work, whereas any additional permission – the permission of the subject to write and read in the face of the work – requires a chain of additional writings (prior written permission).
If chmod is tied to the body’s ontological topology in the network apparatus, it also renders this topology inseparable from crowds and communities. Consider digital rights management (DRM), perhaps the most intense site of debate around permissions. The debates around downloading, torrents, music sharing, and so on, are inseparable from the problem of controlling permission and its constraint to specific users and communities.
Keep in mind that on the net, domains of permission are separated into user, group, and world. Symbolic notation sets read, write, and execute permissions for each of these domains, so -777 is represented as –rwx/rwx/rwx. The first notation is left empty for a file or set to a “d” for permission on a directory. The next octet or notation sets permission for user, then group, and then world. A single string for topology of crowds. Take these as shifters: on the net the shifter can no longer be simply the familiar markers in language. Permission for user or group or world speaks those communities; speaks the community of one (user), a specific group, or anyone at all on the net. Group membership is complex; it can be temporary, overlapping, exclusionary. The chmod command can also set a “sticky bit” that allows or limits mass changing of modes. The sticky pit aggregates and speeds up operations. Stickiness involves retaining the read-only segment of a program in memory or “swap space,” so that users can create but not write files. The point is to prevent users from changing or deleting each others’ files. As a result, user permissions are collapsed into group and world permissions. The implications for digital writers are simple: where previously I saw myself as a creative writer, as modeled on the solitary artist producing from the depths of my psyche; in truth, I am shifted to be part of a more open and indeterminate group of writers who share constrained but communal permission. In this way, the voice and subject of digital poetics is never fixed but fluctuates between the plural and the singular through the setting of permissions.
Each domain of permission demarcates the place for inhabiting and projecting onto the space of electronic writing. Once again: permission spaces is the netting of the subject. A site of “group” ownership is fundamentally different than “user” only, and so on, while “world” opens permission to all. Each case attempts to constrain the scope of the indicative (deictic) function of the shifter. DRM controls constrain permissions to certain users and groups, while sharing communities (torrents, etc.) open permission the world. The crux is less ownership than permission to access and the community (user, group, world) that is allowed this permission; or rather, ownership is within the domain of permission. Lawrence Lessig writes of the danger of the “read-only” internet. Perhaps unintentionally, he frames his argument with the terminology of permission. His call for a necessity and importance of a “read-write” internet is built on the space of permission described here. We are far from the pale remediations and idealizations of the writer and reader that still dominate discussions of digital writing and reading.
To write and to read text assumes at least a minimal narrative. Text is text because it is narrated. The structural narratology of Mieke Bal insists on this narrative premise in every utterance. Every <text> is readable because of the framing <I narrate <text>>. Even the blankest screen is an utterance. This minimal narrativity is tied to the deictic function of language. In the structural linguistics of Emile Benveniste, deictic utterances point to and invoke a world. Benveniste spoke of the signs used in the subject’s act of utterance as the “formal apparatus of enunciation.” The apparatus makes the subject present, an autobiographical apparatus allowing the subject to say and write “I.” Following Roman Jakobson, “shifters” are the linguistic deictics understood as speaking the subject: “I” or “me” or “Sandy” do not possess semantic value but syntactically speak the subject.
What are shifters on the net? Shifters enact the deictic function of language. Through shifters language “says” being. All digital writing is enunciated. What does it speak? What does digital writing utter? In part, it speaks permissive enframing and containment by the operating system. The indicative function of deixis references the operating system as the background world of the net. The system contains and holds language.
The psyche of the subject is circumscribed by the closure of the site. Permissive closure as shifter places and locates the subject’s enunciation. Nothing exits this closure. All that the subject is, is uttered here. The speaking subject is entirely a product of this apparatus. The shifter operates with a “punctual” reality concept (“wirklichkeitsbegriff”), in Hans Blumenberg’s sense. The “point” (or punctum) of the shifter holds the subject and system together.
Time is involved as well. The shifter fixes the time of the subject and creates a “pure present.” In digital writing, this is the real time of the screen, or the temporality of the “work.” This deictic time-space siting is at work in every surface, every web page, every electronic word, every font and pixel, and every space.
What kind of subject knows that they are permitted? A pervert, of course. The psychoanalytic terminology of “perversion” is specific here: I write and read and execute by assuming the desire of the other. The knowledge that allows digital writing and reading is the pervert’s knowledge. I only know the other’s desire because I act it out (I execute and perform) in my desire (in my reading and writing). A psychic model of digital poetics is found in the creativity of the pervert who wishes to recreate the world in the image of an other that can only be found precisely through this imaginary. What a pervert I am! I gaze at the screen or at the pixel or at the font, I imagine through the apparatus, and play until I am fulfilled. This is digital poetics.
How does chmod relate to the absent body?
It is too easy to emphasize the closure of the site. Permissions are openings. Setting permission to -777 or -775 allows access to write and alter files. A site can be taken over, owned, defaced, renamed. The chmod -setuid can allow trojan horse or other malware entry through “privilege escalation.”
To grasp the shifter as a sign and as part of a language is to inhabit a particular culture and a particular habitus. To see the site as closed and to take permission for granted is to punctually and permissively close the horizon of my culture, to say “I am a writer” and “I am a reader” with the confidence of a shared community and writing materials and techniques. In doing so, the sememe is narrowed to particular domains of knowledge. Or rather, to directories and files. Digital writing and writers today are caught in this narrow, constrained into file systems. The “emerging” field of digital writing is constituted through this closure of knowledge. We know what constitutes a work and a writer. Or rather, a file and a directory. What is a digital writer but a directory, a space of permission with the capability of siting files (works)?
Think here of Heidegger’s “enframing” technology but in terms of acts of permission rather than of the unfolding of being. The net is already a culture for us. It is thick with the other and our desire towards the other. It is lived and cultural. It is part of our world. Permission is at work here. The application and its features are permitted as objects of understanding. The “application” or technical object is a foreclosure of the shifter. Only in this way can we comfortably operate (write/read/execute). Protocol is definable because of this closing off. Protocol must not be understood as technical specifications. No, the reverse is true: every technical specification is the fictionalized residue of the body sieved and emitted through permissions. Protocol is a narrative of the body’s presentation. Permission is one of the protocological features that formalize actions, controls responsibility, and elaborate institutional personas. It is a concrete form of culture. The real but absent body is splayed across the files and directories of the permissive site.
To take permission for granted is to believe in the net’s existence. Could things be otherwise? Surely the opposite is the case? The net is fragile, built on the fly, barely or not at all existent, constantly happening and collapsing around us. (Think of the origin of the internet in Paul Baran’s desire for “survivable communication.” The net is the phantasm of this survival, always claimed in theory, sought in practice, lost in truth.)
Back with the shifter: we locate ourselves uncertainly in this projection. It is a partial source of the subject, a clot or coagulate without amounting to a body. The body is absent in every shifter. On the one hand, authority withdraws. The discourse of “protocol” following Galloway, or of “network culture” following Castells, or other cognate formations, formalizes the chmod command (and all similar commands), as if commands were at work as a performative ground of all writing online. Execution – the most significant but least graspable aspect of permission – is assumed everywhere. The net works. If permission must be given and set in practice, it is easier to assume the stability of the network in theory.
Listen to this: permission is prior to the deictic site. Or rather, permission opens the utterance through the possibility of narrative and quest. Deixis results from permission. The deictic display or pointing requires context. It invokes or carries semantics rather than containing a fixed semantic meaning. Enunciation always is other. The time of the screen is elsewhere, historical. A fundamental poetic point: permission creates mission. Narratives are stories unfolded of permission given. The materiality of media is emitted from permission to use the apparatus, as tools, as raw material. At the least, this means there is a voice caught up in the apparatus, a voice that must be “sourced.” Voice as material for enunciation but also as distant echo from outside the material. The apparatus allows speech but also speaks of allowance.
Is writing anything other than producing a work or a file? Is the digital writer anything other than a site or directory? The siting and existence of each, within the withdrawn authority of the net.
Every work is addressed to me. I court your permission. Do you give permission? There is no shifter here. There is only words on blank. There are never shifters, never any reference, never any world. All these formulas assume permission given and taken for granted. I can not know if I am permitted, I can only write. In the “absence of the work” (Blanchot) I write without guarantee, transitive and infinite, never knowing if I am permitted or not. The subject surges beyond the site of enunciation. Permission is absent, is everywhere, is uncertain, exorbitant and excessive.