Monday, 31 May 2010


It seems that A.AAAARG.ORG has finally bitten the dust: the site’s main page now bears the legend, ‘A.AAAARG.ORG DOES NOT EXIST’, a delightful comment on the transient and virtual nature of an ‘organisation’ that was always virtual, never ‘actual’, but which offers us some intriguing glimpses, even, one might say, utopian possibilities, for the future of study and intellectual exchange. Given this, I thought that now might be an appropriate to set out some of my thoughts on the AAAARG phenomenon (yes, something can be a ‘phenomenon’ even if it isn’t all over myspace, Facebook, Twitter, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post) and what it might mean.

Some time last summer, at the internet point in a small Spanish albergue on the Camino de Santiago, I came across a link to a resource with an astounding amount of book-length, PDF-format academic material, from the likes of Derrida, Barthes, Adorno, Deleuze and Zizek, apparently available for free download. I'd just graduated from university, and had thus lost my access to university library facilities and to websites, such as JSTOR, which contain back-issues of journals and academic e-books. Furthermore, my graduation had necessitated a move from Cambridge back to Swindon, where the availability of academic books (particularly in the realms of literary and critical theory, aesthetics, and 'avant-garde' music) leaves something to be desired. Thus, though I didn’t realize it fully until I got back home from Spain, AAAARG.ORG (later updated to A.AAAARG.ORG.), was to become a particularly useful resource. Having subscribed to the website’s mailing list, I found a daily e-mail popping into my inbox, containing a list of at least twenty uploaded books per day, on topics as diverse as anarchist and Marxist thought, aesthetics, literary theory, continental philosophy, geography, feminism, poetry, orientalism: you name it, it was there. My hard drive was soon filling up with neatly-compressed PDFs of all kinds, most of which I still have not read.

The problem with this sort of thing is that such this vast availability of information, easily clickable and downloadable, means that a lifetime of thought becomes translated into a few megabytes of hard disk space. I’m not saying that such information should become the privilege of an elite, moneyed few – those with the inclination and the cash to splash out fifteen pounds on a two-hundred page slab of Derridean wisdom – but the worry is that it becomes just another bit of data, just another part of the spectacle, just another collection of dots on a screen to which we pay only the vaguest attention. It’s the same with music downloads: there’s no doubt that fans of ‘left-field’ music (particularly those who missed out on original releases the first time round, because they hadn’t yet been born!) have received something akin to an education through file-sharing blogs like Inconstant Sol, Church Number Nine, and all the others (see my article in the second issue of ‘eartrip’). We owe much to this massive up-surge in the availability of MP3 versions of long out-of-print LPs containing free jazz, free improvisation, musique concrete, Indian classical music, Afrobeat, and all other kinds of cross- and sub-generic offerings. And yet, I find myself – and I know I’m not alone in this – with piles of CDs, each containing about twenty hours’ worth of music – CDs of material I’ve downloaded and burned myself, CDs I’ve been given by friends – that, in all likelihood, I may not listen to for months or even years; and, if I do listen to them, I may not listen to them with the full and careful attention they deserve, and which might be accorded to them if they sat in front of me as separate and unique objects, gate-fold LPs or jewel-case CDs, rather than megabytes on a computer screen. The tendency is to see something that looks interesting, and to download, because it’s free – and then to forget about it, to put it on the back-burner, to download something else, and then something else, and something else again…

There’s a further problem with the academic book file-sharing: most of these books are still in print, unlike the LPs. In the end, though, I don’t find this too hard a claim to react to: few of us have the money to splash out on these books; most of us rely on borrowing other people’s copies, using university libraries, and the like. And I’m intrigued and encouraged by the anti-copyright rhetoric of free improviser/theorist Mattin and others, and by the idea of some new kind of digital university, a virtual space where the exchange of ideas is free and open, where information is shared for its own sake, rather than traded and bartered for and guarded with the jealousness with which ‘property’ is guarded – a radical system, anarchy in the best sense, with exciting political implications. Even if such a system doesn’t exist in the ‘real world’, sites like A.AAAARG, just like musical free improvisations, offer a glimpse of what such utopias might be like, provide templates which might be applied to the worlds of politics and social organization on a much larger scale. This becomes all the more pertinent as I’ve become increasingly jaded by the monetization and corruption inherent in the structures of universities as they exist, in the main, today; by the way that people with ‘good intentions’ and exciting minds are forced into systems in which they are forced to fight for their right to think, provoke, challenge, inquire, forced to tick boxes and assess the financial and economic benefits their work will bring. The ‘virtual university’ offers an alternative where money and physical space is not an issue, a truly global collaborative network, where ideas are shared for their own importance, and not for their financial benefit.

Having said all this, I’m afraid I will have to deflate this rousing conclusion by admitting that it is far easier on the eyes to read a book made of paper and ink, rather than one made of pixels and brightly-glowing lights. Anyway, further reading at the following links:

Paris Ionescu on aaaarg and agonism (

Newsflash on the aaaarg closure (

Discussion with AAAARG architect Sean Dockray ( "I don’t think it’s sustainable, but file sharing is resilient. That part is sustainable if what’s meant is something that will weather bad economies, legal threats, changes in technology, etc. AAAARG probably won’t. But I don’t think it matters; it’s not trying to be the new library. That said, I don’t think it will disappear, I don’t think anything ever does. The word promiscuity for the digital object I think is a really good one."

Very comprehensive overview/history of online text-sharing sites ( “As mentioned before, the harm to producers (scholars) and their publishers (in Humanities and Social Sciences mainly Not-For-Profit University Presses) is less clear. First of all, their main customers are libraries (compare this to the software business model: free for the consumer, companies pay), who are still buying the legal content and mostly follow the policy of buying either print or both print and ebook, so there are no lost sales there for the publishers. Next to that it is not certain that the piracy is harming sales. Unlike in literary publishing, the authors (academics) are already paid and do not loose money (very little maybe in royalties) from the online availability.. [….] Still, it is not only the lack of fear of possible retaliations that is feeding the upsurge of text sharing communities. There is a strong ideological commitment to the inherent good of these developments, and a moral and political strive towards institutional and societal change when it comes to knowledge production and dissemination.”

Brief article on piracy ( "It is not only because there can be potentially infinite owners of property that the internet redefines our notion of it. It is also that people who participate in the exchange of immaterial works do not treat them as property. When they exchange music, books or movies, they are not merely transferring ownership from themselves to others; they simply do not recognise themselves as owners in the first place."

Mattin’s essay on Free Improvisation and the Anti-Copyright ethos ( "Notions of intellectual property are going to be the issue of the future, and if we do not find ways of challenging the structures that are being developed we are going to be pretty fucked."

aaaarg itself (


Chad Hardy said...

This is too bad. Something tells me you'll get around to reading some of the data on your hard drive. Probably some books on your shelf you haven't gotten around to reading either.

andw said...

i think from within the university profession it must seem rather gratuitous, since many critical theory and scholarly are available, quite easily through institutional logins/pswds to justor, etc. [on a side note, i do wonder how much excess, so to speak, there is here as well-- for instance, while many universities regularly change logins, its not uncommon for academics to receive access well beyond their actual time with an institution or quite easily through other sharing 'nodes', shall we say. I.e. a friend/colleague]. I think one way of anaylzing aaarg is to ask: does aaaarg -- when it comes to scholarly/critical texts -- not simply do what already goes on within the "academy"?, but without an overt payment plan going to such companies as Justor. And further who in fact is really interested in 95% of the texts on aaaarg? Academics and/or 'intellectuals' (personally, i can't stand this 19th c. classification but we won't break that down now). So then let's speak of these intellectuals. My guess is that many of them are involved, shall we say, in intersections of critical theory and culture. Like in the arts, or grassroots activism, or contemporary design. Not even neccesarily professionally.

So, this site then becomes something much more then you realize. it's not just a glimpse of utopia, its a living, breathing actual space where critical research can be supported. It's not so much a glimpse but a real 'thing', that to use capitalist frames of mind, fills a 'need'.

And without this resource, I for one, feel as if a light has gone out. That is rather melodramatic. But nonetheless true.

There have been and wil continue to be different spaces on the net or in the digital 'space' where sharing of knowledge and discovery of an 'intellectual' and critical theory bend will occur. But at each point that one of these rises and then dies out, it sometimes takes years to re-grow another.

In any case, the winner here is Justor and the re-consolidation of the ivory tower.

The idea of public knowledge was the utopic drive here. And it is what has taken a loss now, with aaaarg's demise.

I hope that it will re-surface, but I am getting the feeling that if it does it will be within a very small circle, and very likely people who already have access to these very same works thru friends/colleagues in the academy. And then it will truly die, because it will only be redundant, and have no other purpose, no other 'life'.


david_grundy said...

One important difference between aaarg and JSTOR (etc), which I neglected to mention, is partly that the *scale* of stuff that was available on aaaarg was far wider than what's avaiable on an institutional login. To find that amount of material elsewhere, you'd actually have to head off to a physical library, probably one connected to a university.

I'm quite interested in the way that aaaarg is simultaneously a 'real thing', as you say, and something that doesn't exist in a physical space. Because of this, I'm more hopeful for the survival of its ethos than I would be if it had been a wholly physical entity (this isn't like the burning of the Alexandria library - the material is 'second-hand', reproducable). Sean Dockray seems to share my view: in the interview I quoted at the end of the post, he seems confident that aaaarg itself was the container for an idea that would continue regardless of temporary setbacks, rather than something whose demise would mean the end of that idea. I suppose we'll have to wait and see whether anything comparable emerges in the next few months, and how long it can last. Perhaps it could re-surface as an email list resource, with the books sent as attachments? (Meanwhile, there's always Scribd...)