A brief history of the Spoon Collective
The period between 1980 and the mid-90s saw the deployment of a number of major technologies for collective communications over the Internet — such as Usenet and Bulletin Board Systems in the early 80s, Eric Thomas’ ListServ in the mid-80s, MOOs in the early 90s, Brent Chapman’s Majordomo in 1992. These technologies ushered in completely novel possibilities for collaborative thinking and writing.
In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a flourishing of Internet discussion groups in philosophy and critical analysis — social, cultural, political and artistic. Frequently, the creators and participants of these groups were either non-academics or people who found their academic environment intellectually sterile. The new medium offered stupendous potentialities for breaking people’s intellectual isolation and bringing them in contact with peers that they could not find among face-to-face contacts. The Internet became, for many, the place where they lived their intellectual life.
Just to give some random roadposts: rec.music.classical started in June 1987; alt.postmodern in May 1989; Michele Macaluso’s ArtCrit list in the late 80s; David Erben’s Derrida list in June 1991. And between 1992 and 1993, Kent Palmer and Lance Fletcher created ThinkNet/DialogNet, a stupendously ambitious network of dozens upon dozens of email lists and BBSs intended to encompass every area of philosophy and systems theory and ultimately become the foundation of an open “Internet University”. As Kent Palmer wrote: “Suddenly we have opened up a window to the world and through that window we can learn to speak out minds and perhaps learn from each other. [ThinkNet/]DialogNet is a forum for the presentation of ideas, thoughts and reflections so that they may be tested against the best thoughts of other minds from around the globe in real-time conversation and debate.”
The early ThinkNet lists were hosted at world.std.com, a Boston ISP which at the time offered its customers unlimited free Majordomo lists.
In late 1993 and early 1994, some events occurred within the ThinkNet framework which ultimately led to the creation of the Spoon Collective. These events involved, besides Kent Palmer, the persons of Michael Current, a young unemployed thinker and gay activist from Des Moines, IA, “Specializing in Philosophy, Queer Studies, Depression, & Unemployment” (in his words); Malgosia Askanas, a mathematician, software engineer and street performer from Boston, and Michael Harrawood, a graduate student of English at Berkeley (specializing in Shakespeare) — all of whom were, in one way or another, intensely invested in the ThinkNet lists.
The first of those events was the creation of the Deleuze list. Kent Palmer (who was, at the time, employed as software/systems engineer at Boeing and had a PhD in philosophy of science from the London School of Economics) was engaged in, as he described it, “research in ontology and autopoietic social systems theory”. Consequently, included in the ThinkNet collection was a set of lists dedicated to autopoiesis, and in the context of those lists the names “Deleuze”, and “Anti-Oedipus”, kept coming up. To quote from an account by Fido Rodenbeck:
“So Kent, not really knowing a thing about Deleuze, started a Deleuze list in the hopes of learning. […] Kent has many advanced degrees. But Kent was unaware of the import of the action he’d just completed: that is, starting a list for people into Deleuze or people into what they thought Deleuze might be into: people whose writing slams in the megalopolis, people into becoming-genera, people-against-oedipus, people into rubber clothes, people who weren’t offended by edgy language, people who didn’t give a fuck about advanced degrees, you get the pitcher…
Michael Current agreed to moderate the list once it became apparent that Kent, since he had by now installed a number of complementary lists, couldn’t moderate any of them and run them at the same time. But in the first weeks of Michael’s tenure as moderator, Michael had a number of bizarre embodied syntax errors — he changed his medication, and was having a lot of trouble adjusting. Rather than duck out and come back all fresh, Michael made his body part of the text of his list, and from the start [the Deleuze list] had an emotional quality, a PHYSICAL quality, that I don’t think Kent was ever able to understand […].”
Palmer had certain ideas of decorum in philosophical conversation. He monitored the discussions on his lists for breaches of decorum, and would suddenly intervene into heated arguments when they did not meet his standards of good taste. These interventions drew upon him a prolonged controversy and mutual harangues first with Harrawood and then with Askanas and Current, who all stubbornly objected to the idea of policing philosophical discussions in the name of an a priori standard of what they should be. It is interesting to note that it was this issue, rather than some generalized issue of “free speech”, that was the crux of the controversy.
These harangues had a tendency to make Palmer, who — in a truly astounding effort — was managing many tens of lists by himself, feel unappreciated and depressed. At such times he would abandon the lists for a while and/or threaten to close them altogether.
In early 1994, Palmer intervened in a discussion on the Deleuze list, and his intervention met with intense hostility from the list as a whole. This threw him into an especially intense bout of discouragement. He declared that he had had it, and was going to close down all of ThinkNet. As a result, Current and Askanas, unhappy with having a significant aspect of their intellectual life held hostage by Palmer’s mood fluctuations, decided to open their own account at world.std.com, and negotiated with Palmer the transfer of ownership of four of the ThinkNet lists. The account was called “spoon” — a name selected for the light weight, utility and versatility of the object it denoted, in contrast to the ponderous name “ThinkNet”. The four lists were Deleuze, Avant-garde (a list which Palmer created as a kind of ThinkNet Australia to which to banish potentially unruly discussions, and on which, at the time, Askanas was “leading” a discussion of Hakim Bey’s “T.A.Z”), Film-theory (which Palmer had created at Askanas’ request) and Technology, with which Askanas was also intensely involved. The transfer took place in late Spring of 1994, and this was the official beginning of the Spoon Collective. Soon after, Alan Sondheim — a poet, publicist and visual artist from New York — joined Spoon to start, together with Current, the Cybermind list; Steven Meinking, who was “moderating” the ThinkNet Foucault list, joined Spoon and transferred the Foucault list to it; and Jon Beasley-Murray, Flannon Jackson and Seamus Malone joined Spoon to create the Marxism list — the first Internet discussion forum dedicated to Marxist philosophy.
These events are important if one wishes to understand the issues that motivated the (reluctant) formation of the Spoon Collective, and that were to significantly shape its policies and mode of operation: (1) the perception that intellectual discussion needs to be self-regulating, rather than being regulated by a non-participant so as to conform to some external standard of decorum or “proper thought”; (2) the determination on the part of Spoon to not perceive itself in a position of “ownership” — with the attendant right to make demands upon the thinking of listmembers — with respect to the discourse on the lists; and (3) the issue of providing a stable environment for every list in Spoon’s care.
The first two issues motivated the overwhelming — frequently excessive — reluctance to regulate the events on the lists, which became a hallmark of Spoon and led, for example, to the grotesque contortions to which Spoon later resorted in attempting to deal with the de-facto hijacking of its Marxism lists by various sects, dogma-spouters, provocateurs and self-styled “vanguards of the working class”. The third issue significantly shaped the organization of administrative work within the Collective, and the design of the technical infrastructure which supported this work. From its inception, Spoon adopted the strategy of central collective “ownership” (in the listserver sense of the term) and administration of all its lists. The lists were centrally “owned” by the “spoon” account, to which all members of Spoon had access. The administrative tasks for the entire collection of lists — responding to listowner email, handling messages bounced to the listowner for approval, handling undeliverables, troubleshooting technical problems on lists — were handled by each Spooner in turn on the basis of a weekly rotation. For issues that required “inside” understanding of list dynamics, each list had at least one Spoon “caretaker” who actively participated in the lists’ discussions and, in the best cases, attempted to shape them through this participation. More significant or thorny issues encountered either in the course of the administrative rotation or in the context of on-list happenings would be discussed among the Collective before deciding (or punting) on a resolution.
On July 22, 1994, Michael Current died suddenly of a heart attack. This was a tremendous blow to the Collective — not only as the loss of a friend, and one possessed of exceptional intelligence, thoughtfulness, integrity, courage and humor — but also because Current’s understanding of the Internet culture was a crucial resource in the operations of Spoon. In the wake of this loss, Askanas invited Shawn Wilbur, a graduate student of American History at Bowling Green State University and a consummate participant in Internet culture, to join the Collective. Wilbur, who was at the time “moderating” ThinkNet’s Bataille and Baudrillard lists, accepted the invitation and transferred these lists to Spoon.
In the early Fall of 1994, world.std.com announced that it would start charging for its Majordomo lists, and the Spoon Collective decided to try to find a non-commercial host. Wilbur, who was involved with the MOO infrastructure at the University of Virginia’s Institute of Advanced Technologies in the Humanities (IATH), approached John Unsworth, the director of IATH. As a result, Unsworth extended to the Spoon Collective a wonderfully generous offer to host all its lists at the IATH. The Collective moved its operations to Virginia in late 1994, and in early 1995 applied for — and was granted — the status of Networked Fellows. The Collective continued to be hosted at the IATH for the next 10 years, until its dissolution in late 2004.
At the IATH, the Spoon Collective basically had the run of the machine which hosted the Majordomo software, the lists and the list-archives. Over the years, the Collective modified the Majordomo code, implementing a number of enhancements — for instance, the ability to terminate autoresponder loops, the ability to remotely maintain lists of addresses that can post to a given list without being subscribed, and of addresses that should be blocked from subscribing or blocked from posting to a given list (or to all lists); the ability to run pseudonymous and anonymous lists; MIME stripping and HTML translation; the ability to restrict the daily number of posts to a given list from a single person. Some of these are now standard features of modern listservers. In addition, the Collective wrote software tools for the creation, deletion and enhancement of lists, for facilitating searches through subscription lists, for maintaining a single administrative password for all the lists, for handling administrative requests bounced from lists, for stripping irrelevant headers from archived posts, for automatic handling of error bounces, for the display of archives on the Web without translating them into static HTML — and many more.
It is amusing to note that the outer structure of the raw archives reflects some of Spoon’s technological history. For example, the early versions of Majordomo did not have automatic archiving. Consequently, the 1994 archives have been manually compiled from posts collected by individual Spoon members, have a highly idiosyncratic organization, and contain gaps and duplicates. The next Majordomo version used by the Spoon lists had automatic archiving but no automatic division of the archive into monthly files; the posts from each list would all be appended to a single archive file, which would, every now and then, be divided — manually, with the help of scripts — into meaningfully but idiosyncratically named chunks. Then, finally, in mid-1995, the archive became populated by files with the standard Majordomo-archive names of the form LISTNAME.YYMM.
Another example: at world.std.com, every time the Collective wanted a new list or wanted to get rid of an existing list, it had to ask the staff to perform the list-creation or deletion. To minimize the imposition that would be incurred by the creation and deletion of multiple short-term-seminar lists, the Collective requested the creation of five “generic” seminar lists, named seminar-10 through seminar-14, which it would use (reuse) for all its short-term seminars. Even though this stratagem was no longer necessary after the move to Virginia, short-term seminars continued to be held on those five lists.
While the freedom of maneuver that the Spoons enjoyed at Virginia permitted a breadth of experimentation and flexibility that could never be contemplated at world.std.com, it also presented — and by the same token — some serious pitfalls. These were of a dual nature: the ease of expansion, and the shift of attention to technical maintenance.
The Spoons shared with the creators of ThinkNet/Dialognet a predilection for thinking in terms of a “space” of lists that would cross-fertilize each other, rather than an assemblage of individual lists catering to mostly non-intersecting sets of subscribers. In 1994, all the members of the Collective vigorously participated in most of the Collective’s lists, and during the first couple of years of Spoon’s existence there were a number of subscribers who maintained an active and crucial presence on multiple lists. To name just a few: John Young, Tom Blancato, Ariosto Raggo, Fido Rodenbeck, Alastair Dickson, Sawad Brooks, Chris Dacus, Matteo Mandarini, Connor Durflinger, Tristan Riley, Nathan Widder. These multiple list-involvements reflected a continuum of political interest behind the lists for whose ownership the Spoon Collective opted during the first few months of its operation. What the Spoons did not share with Palmer and Fletcher, on the other hand, was any ambition towards “completeness” of their list-space; on the contrary, they started out — especially Current, who was ill and had to manage his energies very carefully — with a horror of overextending themselves. Two factors, however, caused the project to continue to expand in spite of these misgivings. One was the desire, on the part of the people already in Spoon, to bring into existence certain lists that had no equivalent elsewhere — and, precisely in order to avert overextension, the concomitant need to bring into the Collective new members whose vision and participation would shape the direction of these lists. Thus, as mentioned above, Beasley-Murray, Jackson and Malone were inducted into Spoon to create the Marxism list; Dan Kern, to create the Blanchot list; Michael McGee, to “moderate” the Postcolonial list after it had been created by Dan Kern’s inspiration — and many other such inductions followed. The other factor responsible for expansion was the difficulty which the Spoons had in not extending their initial list-rescue impulse to other ThinkNet — and, in later years, non-ThinkNet — lists whose moderators wished to come over to Spoon. This is how Spoon acquired, for example, the Irigaray list (later renamed “French-feminism”) and its moderator Lynda Haas; the Feyerabend list and Marko Toivanen; the Heidegger and Harbermas lists, and Ermel Stepp. These enlargements, which began already while the Collective was hosted at world.std.com, could be accomplished with much greater ease after the move to Virginia. They brought under the care of the Collective a number of lists which were in fact of interest to no more than one member of Spoon, and whose continuance, in cases where this member left (or where there was no essential intra-Spoon interest in the list to begin with), would become to the Collective a matter of “public service” rather than of any active desire.
Indeed, as Rodenbeck pointed out in a hilarious provocation in June 1995 on the List-proposals list, it was infinitely easier for the Collective to create lists than to get rid of them. The problem of how to decide whether a list was “dead” or, in the immortal words of Monty Python, merely “resting”, proved so insurmountable that there was in fact not a single case of the Collective closing down any of its “permanent” lists due to the list having run its course. For as long as a list had subscribers, choosing to say absolutely nothing was, on the subscribers’ part, a perfectly legitimate way of using the list. As for short-term seminars, the Seminar on Collage that was the subject of Rodenbeck’s List-proposals provocation serves as a perfect case study: it started (on the Seminar-11 list) on Oct 24 ‘94; enjoyed two weeks of exuberant activity; fell completely silent until the Summer of ‘95, when Rodenbeck tried to wake it up, with questionable results, by posting a stream of literary bagatelles titled “Everyday Life” under names such as Marcel Mauss, E.M. Cioran and Susan Sontag; received some spam in November ‘95; fell completely silent again; and was only officially closed in March ‘96, almost a year and a half after the end of its two weeks of meaningful activity.
In one spectacular instance, abundant creation of new lists and proliferation of personnel was attempted as a magical substitute for the simple — yet, to the Spoons, almost impossible — act of performing expulsions and imposing “rules of discourse”. By early 1996, the Marxism list had been taken over by diverse sectarians — maoists, trotskyists, leninists, stalinists, adherents of the Sendero Luminoso — and became predominantly an arena for doctrinaire manifestos and verbal thuggery. Unwilling to intervene in what had been promised, in its charter, to be an “open” list, the Spoons decided to create a second list, Marxism2, whose charter left open the possibility of intervention, by declaring: “The policy is that no particular tradition or ‘orthodoxy’ shall be established on this list, nor shall it be an arena for wars between orthodoxies.” However, since this did not relieve the Spoons from having to be engaged with the day-to-day operation of the objectionable Marxism list, in late 1996 the Collective tried a more radical proliferation: it closed down both existing Marxism lists and replaced them with an open-ended entity called “the marxism space”, which consisted (at the time of its creation) of about a dozen lists on different topics, such as Marxism-feminism, Marxism-and-sciences, Marxism-psych, Marxism-theory, Marxism-thaxis (thaxis = theory+praxis), Marxism-general, Marxism-news. The Spoons then attempted to put distance between themselves and the new “space” by letting the on-list issues within the space to be managed by another “collective”, a team composed of volunteers from each list, who were gathered together on yet another list called “Marx-administration”. The “marxism space” was permitted to operate until May 1998, at which point the Spoons finally decided to stop lending their support, resources and technical-administration labor to a project whose exploitation by political interests repugnant to the Spoons was in no way diminished by virtue of the project having been being fragmented into many lists and banished to its own regulatory shell.
Marx-administration was only one of many instances — albeit the most extreme one — of separating the “on-list” functions of running a list from the “off-list” functions of technical administration, such as processing bounced messages, installing filters, or answering technical queries. Off-list administration required access to the Spoons’ Virginia account, a good amount of training, a modicum of political compatibility with the other members of the Collective, and an active interest in the Spoon Project as a whole. The function of the on-list caretaker, on the other hand, was conceived as that of a stimulant and direction-imparting force on the list itself — as well as an early detector of email loops and other potentially crippling problems. The need for stubborn stimulation and “pushing” on the part of some on-list “leadership” is poignantly illustrated by the case of the abovementioned Collage Seminar — which condenses, in a dramatic and extreme foreshortening, the recurring dynamics of most open discussion lists: an initial burst of enthusiastic activity followed — gradually or abruptly — by either relative silence or a settling into some kind of mostly indifferent routine. This pattern usually repeats whenever a new initiative is proposed or undertaken on the list. The intensity of the initial burst may be sustained for a relatively long period if there are one or two people on the list who are determined to sustain it and who put a lot of effort into it; but it ends when these people leave the discussion — even though the list may have hundreds of subscribers.
In fact, the overall history of the “Spoon space” as a whole shows the same pattern. Here, the period of initial intensity seemed to largely coincide with the participation on these lists of a handful of people who made them the center of their creative and intellectual activity and who unstintingly lent their own time and intensity to the life of the lists. After this handful was slowly eroded during the first few years of Spoon’s existence, it was never replaced by a new contingent of similarly-inclined people. The Spoons’ policy of appointing volunteer on-list “caretakers” for each list was intended to ensure precisely the sustenance of the intensity and intellectual aliveness that characterized the Spoon lists in their early period. But this was never really successful. The volunteers were exceedingly hard to find, and when they were found, they did not usually lend much creative juice to the list. It is a bit puzzling why this should be the case. One finds it hard to believe that the existence of people who have time to think, are eager to find a challenging intellectual environment, and are seriously interested in the kinds of questions and thinkers that the Spoon lists centered around, was a fleeting peculiarity of the mid-90s. Nonetheless, such a constatation seems hard to escape.
As was mentioned before, the expansion of the Spoons’ list collection also entailed a certain expansion of the Collective itself. In some cases, a person who had been running a given list elsewhere would ask to transfer the list to Spoon and would also join the Collective; in others, someone would join Spoon in order to start a brand-new list; in yet others, the on-list “caretaker” of an existing list would express an interest in joining the Collective. Since Spoon had never established any official policies as to who could or could not join it, and had formulated no requirements pertaining to the quality of the work contributed by the members, it put itself, a number of times, in a position of accepting, and meticulously training, people who would, in effect — by omission or commission — wind up sabotaging various aspects of Spoons’ operation. The process of coming to realize the reality of such sabotage, trying to peacefully remedy the situation, and finally going through the always acrimonious and divisive effort of expulsion constituted a considerable, and repeated, drain on the collective energies and will.
The increase in the number of lists managed by the Collective, and the changing climate of the Internet itself, resulted in an escalation in the amount of work involved in the tech-support of the lists. Until late 1995, none of the lists had their posting restricted to subscribers, and the “Olga spam” — instructing its readers how to find romance in the former USSR — which hit the Spoon lists in the Summer of that year, was an exotic event, whose recurrence was prevented by hacking a special check for the word “Olga” directly into the Virginia Majordomo. In 2004, allowing unrestricted posts on any list would be unthinkable; every day, the Collective would receive about 700 pieces of non-subscriber spam bounced from the various lists — spam that would have gone to the lists had they allowed unrestricted posting. But restricting posts to subscribers meant that legitimate posts from the subscribers’ alternate addresses would also be bounced to Spoon — and so the person on administrative rotation would have to sift through the spam in search of a few legitimate posts that needed approval. To diminish the number of such posts, the Collective added to Majordomo a function for maintaining sets of “extra” addresses that were permitted to post without having to be subscribed. New functions — later found more widely applicable — were also added to Majordomo in support of the Marxism lists, in an attempt to prevent known provocateurs or other destructive elements from posting or subscribing.
In early 1997, there appeared on the Internet a publicly dowloadable program called Avalanche, which gave its user the capability to mailbomb his or her enemies in a variety of alternative ways, one of which was by subscribing the victim to all the lists of the Spoon Collective. As a result, the Collective found itself under an incredible assault, both from the sheer stream of forged subscriptions and from the enraged victims. The latter problem was fixed by a Majordomo hack which restricted the number of subscriptions coming from a single source; the stream of requests hitting Majordomo, however, although it abated over time as the novelty of Avalanche diminished, did not fully cease until 2001, when the Spoon lists were moved from a machine called “jefferson” to a machine called “lists”.
One of the hidden but potentially unmanageable problems of running a large set of lists is the problem of error bounces — i.e. bounces from discontinued or otherwise problematic subscriber addresses. The proper handling of such bounces is to inspect each of them so as to find the address causing it, and then to unsubscribe this address from the list. If this is not done, the address will continue to bounce forever, putting an extra load on the mail system of the list’s host. This handling is a relatively easy task if one is running one or two lists, but becomes overwhelming — as the Spoons found out early on — even if one is running a handful of lists with a few hundreds of subscribers, let alone tens of lists with many thousands of subscribers. Attempting to deal with these bounces (or agonizing about not being able to deal with them) constituted a major aspect of the administrative rotation until the Summer of 1995, when the Spoons produced a first implementation of an automatic error handler — which, however, did not reach an acceptable efficacy, and continued to require substantial manual intervention, until early 1998.
The happenings and tendencies touched upon in the preceding paragraphs — and many others besides — had, as their combined effect, an increasing estrangement of the Collective from its individual lists, an increasing “laborization” of the work involved in running them, and a gradual exhaustion of collective energies and investments. The story of the Marxism lists, summarized above, unfolded as an (admittedly extreme) consequence of the Spoons’ almost superstitious reluctance to demand of their lists that they should conform to some pre-envisioned set of standards or usages. The lists — so the Spoons argued — should, in the ultimate analysis, be permitted to go wherever the subscribers want to take them, and be of whatever use the subscribers wish to get out of them. The only regulation should come from the inside, from the subscribers themselves, their ideas and passions. The consequence, over the years, as the direct list-participation of individual members of the Collective diminished, was that the lists — even those that the Collective ran from its very inception — were allowed to go in directions which were in fact of no special interest to the very people who ran those lists and who continued to shoulder their tedious and uninspiring daily administration. In effect, the maintenance of the Spoon lists became a public-service project, and the Collective became increasingly infected with the indifference and apathy that often characterizes public service institutions. By 2004, for example, it became next to impossible to make any serious collective decisions — not, as in the past, because of vigorous disagreements inside the Collective, but because of an almost complete anomie.
There can be little doubt that as far as public-service projects go, Spoon could be deemed a worthy and quite successful one. In the course the 10 years of Spoon’s operation, many tens of people actively participated — either as full members or as “caretakers” of specific lists — in the work of the Collective; and close to 100 lists passed through its care. The environment it built became a renowned and valued Internet “space” for public discussion of critical theory and of that stream in philosophy which could be called “the natural philosophy of Desire”; and many researchers, teachers and students made good use of it as a scholastic resource. But if one wants to view the Spoon project in the spirit which presided over its creation, and which, for years, sustained its energies, then one needs to evaluate it not as a scholastic resource, but rather as a multiplicity of experiments — in collectivity and micropolitics, in the creative uses of technologies, in the management of open forums, in provoking and sustaining thoughtful public discussions, in developing new ways of thinking, writing, and interacting. From this point of view, the success of the project will depend on the extent to which its experiments will serve as a springboard for future analyses, questionings, rethinking, and further experiments.
In the Spring of 2003, John Unsworth accepted a position at the University of Illinois, and in the Fall of that year he left the IATH. A year later, in the Spring of 2004, Bernard Frischer, then a professor of Classics at UCLA, was nominated as the new IATH director. During that year, the technical support of the IATH for the Spoon Collective became perceptibly more reluctant, and in the Spring of 2004 the Collective received a letter from Daniel Pitti, Interim Co-Director of IATH, questioning the formal status of the Collective at IATH and announcing the IATH’s intent to discontinue Majordomo support and to adopt Mailman (which is not suitable for centralized administration of multiple lists) as its sole listserver. Even though the Collective furnished some documents proving its status, and compiled a technical document listing the functions it required from its listserver, there would be no further reply from the IATH administration until November 30, at which point IATH briskly communicated its decision that the Spoon project did not fit in with the Institute’s “core mission” and would therefore no longer be hosted.
At this point, however, the Collective, whose members had been, for some of the reasons discussed above, growing increasingly weary of many aspects of their daily activities, had already embarked upon its own dissolution. Here, in part, is the letter from Askanas to the other Spoon members, dated November 15, 2004, which officially dissolved the Collective:
“Let me start with an executive summary. My position, in short, is that the Spoon project has been dying for a long time, and has been dead for a shorter, but still considerable, time; that we should have dissolved the Collective when this ongoing death first became apparent; and that I would like to hereby dissolve it.
As I have said whenever the opportunity presented itself, the Spoon project arose as a political project and the Spoon Collective as a political formation. They arose, first of all, from an unstated shared conviction that thought (what is being thought and how) and life (the way daily life, in all its aspects, is conducted) are inseparably linked with each other. The early philosophy lists and Usenet groups, with their ability to bring into mutual contact and confrontation thinking people from all over the computerized world — people from astoundingly different walks of life and with astoundingly different ways of thinking, but with a shared passion for more accurate perception and deeper understanding — seemed to present a stupendous potential for evolving new modes of thought and new modes of life. And it is crucial to note that when we were motivated by a thirst for new modes of thought and life, it was for ourselves that we wanted them, right now. The politics of the Spoon project were not a matter of providing soap boxes for people to spread this or that doctrine, or providing debating forums where people could present and swap arguments, or providing academic exchange channels, or even providing forums where “leftists” could get together to safely gripe about the world, or swap activism stories, or pass around petitions. Rather, the politics were about changing life — the life we think and live — starting right now.
And I am not talking about a utopian project. The fact is that for a while our lives were truly being changed. They were being changed because (1) we ourselves were a group of intelligent, passionate, thinking beings; (2) we were involved together in a project requiring concrete work, and had to deal with concrete problems whose resolution required actionable confrontations between our different ways of being and thinking; (3) we each had an intense libidinal investment in the project. And an important manifestation of this intensity was that each of us was significantly and passionately active, on a daily basis, on a number of our own lists — not because we realized that, in order to function, they needed an “external” push or provocation or direction, but because the confrontations they afforded us were, first and foremost, tools for the upheaving of our own ideas.
It is indisputable that in the course of the past 10 years, this situation has completely changed, and it seems clear to me that the single aspect that changed it was the withdrawal, on our part, of the libidinal investment. I really don’t know if this could have been prevented had we made some different decisions. It is clear that one can only change one’s thought and life if one is intensely invested in such a change. I think large public lists waste and ultimately burn out this intensity, simply because they force one to deal with numerous idiots, saboteurs, bureaucratic antiproducers, people who speak, argue and debate without any real interest except for killing time. For a while, one may gain insight from discussing with such people, since one then forces oneself to articulate, question and test one’s own thoughts, but after a while one has “seen them all” and doesn’t want to have to talk to another one for as long as one lives. I think that if we had been faithful to our politics, we should have nurtured and protected our own productive passion by ruthlessly getting rid from the lists of people whose “participation” was a drag on it. I simply don’t think that it is possible to reconcile the politics that founded Spoon with a diffuse ideal of “wide participation” and indefinitely prolonged “equal opportunity”. But we never seriously confronted ourselves with such inconsistencies in our political thinking, and our death began as soon as we started evading the awareness of their existence.
I also think that, as we have suggested to each other many times, it was a mistake to divide the lists by thinker, group of thinkers, and/or academic field. This encourages them to be joined by people who “specialize” in the given thinker or field and who want to have more or less “academic” conversations about it. We thought that somehow because we had a “set” of lists, there would be substantial cross-pollination and melding of discussions, but obviously just having a bunch of lists in the same place doesn’t accomplish that. I don’t know what would have accomplished what we wanted — but what we, instead, wound up with is a structure where the best one can hope for is to discuss this or that aspect of Deleuze with a group of people who make, or hope to make, their living out of Deleuze, and discuss this or that aspect of postcolonial theory with people who make, or hope to make, their living out of postcolonial theory.
To pursue the politics which created Spoon, we should have changed our structures and policies whenever, and as often as, we perceived that they did not do for us what we wanted them to do, what inspired our passion. But, instead, we permitted them to stagnate — in the name of “stability”, “community service”, “responsibility” to the subscribers, and so on. In other words, we did not accord to our own political passion the respect and seriousness required to keep it alive. The only “stability” we should have served was the continuance of our own desire, and nurturing this desire should have been our only responsibility. But instead, we let it die. And then, instead of diagnosing this death and ending the project, we let it drag on, arguing — as we still do — that we “don’t mind” doing the weekly rotation, since it only takes X minutes a day.
Well, I would like, at this late hour, to diagnose the death of Spoon, issue a coroner’s report, and give the corpse its much overdue burial. When I look at the matter from a proper clinical perspective, I have to proclaim that we should, indeed, mind every minute we spend on doing rotation, since it is a minute we are spending in boredom and indifference. And it has become increasingly obvious that I mind every hour I have to spend doing technical Spoon work, even though I gladly spend the same time doing exactly the same technical work on other projects that have the power to engage my thought and passion. Moreover, I mind every bit of effort I spend in the “service” of the people populating our lists — people who, in large part, consider themselves “leftists” but have no appreciation for the work, whether done as labor or out of passion, that we put into running this operation, no interest in by whom, how, and for what purpose the stuff they consume is produced, no desire to build, to think, to live, but infinite claims as to what is “owed” them. These people are not my political allies, and it should have been long ago my politics to stop catering to them. And I mind, too much to even try to overcome it, having to spend any time negotiating with the new guard at Virginia, adjusting to the environment they might come up with, reminding them to put the right group permissions on the aliases file, and having to hope that the new IATH director, Bernie Frischer, will somehow take a shine to the Spoon Project. And the way to cure this malaise — this death so long past curing — is not to take on, as someone suggested, new “responsibilities”, in the manner of people who beget children in order to “keep the marriage together”. The way to cure it is to stop prolonging it. I myself have been instrumental much, much too long in prolonging it, and I now, finally, say “Basta”. Spoon is dead. Let’s close shop.
And if some of you want to consider continuing the project in some form, I would like to stipulate that the continuation take place under a different name. The names “Spoon Project” and “Spoon Collective” should belong exclusively to the project that I have just declared to be dead. They should be permitted to refer, historically, to a specific collective motivation, a specific micropolitical state which has run its course.”
At the time of its dissolution, the Collective ran about 50 lists, including: Anarchy-list, Aut-op-sy, Avant-garde, Bataille, Baudrillard, Bhaskar, Blanchot, Bourdieu, Crit-psych, Deleuze-guattari, Derrida, Dromology, Feyerabend, Film-theory, Foucault, Frankfurt-school, French-feminism, Habermas, Heidegger, Klossowski, List-proposals, Lyotard, Marxism-intro, Method-and-theory, Modernism, Nietzsche, Phillitcrit, Postanarchism, Postcolonial, Postcolonial-info, Puptcrit, Sa-cyborgs, Spoon-administration, Spoon-announcements, Surrealist, Technology, Third-world-women. The total subscribership of these lists in November of 2004 was about 12,000. The Collective had 8 members: Malgosia Askanas, Jon Beasley-Murray, Jim Castonguay, Radhika Gajjala, Reg Lilly, Mark Nunes, Judith Poxon, and Shawn Wilbur.
By M. Askanas
To Driftline Home Page, or up to: