KARAGARGA: Cultural Capital and Leisure/Labor in an Online Cinephilic Community
While the avenues by which culture is disseminated have evolved and expanded dramatically in the 150-odd years since Marx wrote about “the wonderful things” that labor produces for the rich and the “deformity” it produces for the worker,1 the capitalist structure enabling that exchange has grown more concerted in its control over the globe. With the rise of the Internet, the producers of popular culture have seen a challenge in the movement of physical goods within the capitalist model of distribution, with studios and record labels releasing a variety of statistics that suggest the massive harm perpetrated by illegal downloading.2 Lawsuits resulted in further permutations of the file-sharing model, with the emergence of P2P networking signaling a decentralization of data, effectively dissolving the power of the server and dispersing data control to the users. Much has been written about large, headlining P2P hubs such as The Pirate Bay and Mininova, where a lack of policing results in a kind of anarchic smash-and-grab of digital files and continued lawsuits. But smaller, more focused private communities operate as tight-knit hegemonic enclosures that closely monitor each member in order to ensure that order is maintained. If someone deviates from the guidelines set forth, they are ostracized from the community. One such community is KaraGarga, which specializes strictly in classic, foreign, and avant-garde films. Because KaraGarga is a complex and multifaceted example of a non-geographical site of convergence wherein ideas of leisure and labor, the attainment of culture, and the necessity of equal sharing result in a twisting and remolding of economic and social models, it becomes a noteworthy site to analyze through the lens of theorists whose work has focused on the agency of the individual to participate in the cultural and economic systems in which they live. I have chosen three theorists working at very different time periods who can contribute insight into the workings of KaraGarga, thereby also illuminating key distinctions in their varied cultural moments: Karl Marx and his writings on the estrangement of the modern worker in the mid-1800s; Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno and their writings on the growing homogeneity and absorption of culture into capitalist modes of production in the 1940s; and Henry Jenkins' writings on fan power, fan labor, and “participatory culture” in the 2000s. Both Marx and the Horkheimer/Adorno seem pessimistic about the mass' ability to retain agency while bound within the structure of capitalism, always subservient to the dominant modes of control, but Jenkins is optimistic about the humanity of consumers and their interest in the products of their culture, which in turn serves to dissolve those dominant forces. In fostering that ability and showcasing the unifying and collaborative effect of electronic communal spaces through fan-subtitling, KaraGarga appears almost like a functioning utopia for cinephiles, but a close examination reveals subtle structures of power and exclusion still in place, speaking to the continued relevance of Marx, Horkheimer, and Adorno in examining contemporary sites of social and cultural exchange.
First, to ask a basic, foundational question: what is KaraGarga, and what place does it have in society? In simple terms, it is a “free,” illicit website which functions as a hub to connect users to each other and the copyrighted content they wish to share. There are two ways to approach KaraGarga as an economic system: in the micro, or within itself, and the macro, in the larger scope of the world economy. Let us first approach it in the micro. Jonas Andersson, in writing about The Pirate Bay, insists on the importance of not divorcing P2P commodity from economic structures simply because it is “free.” He notes, “it is still an economic activity, having economic repercussions, generating externalities, and it still requires outposts of institutionalization and safeguarding.”3 Indeed, many factors must preexist in order for one to access a site such as KaraGarga. Let us also note that the act of downloading and subtitling films are both “second-order modes,” or those that occur “after or in opposition to the primary process of production,”4 which means that anything procured or modified on KaraGarga has already been produced in another institution. Since it is a site of cultural exchange between individuals, to understand this second-order cultural “institution,” let us first look at it from a economic, structural standpoint. Like almost all BitTorrent-based communities, the currency of KaraGarga is “ratio,” which places a value on each new member of the society at 0. As the user downloads, the ratio fluctuates, and if that user consumes more than he/she produces, they drop below 0 and risk removal from the community. Though some have used the word “capital” to describe the buying-power of BitTorrent communities, it is not quite a proper term as we understand it, for its valuation is a 1:1 reward of effort enacted. Let us not call this capital, then, but “labor incentive.” In a way, such a community becomes a kind of socialism in practice. In most circumstances, the mere accumulation of labor incentive does not allow a user to “purchase” anything of significance other than more downloads, but if that user has the ability to continue, this intrinsically means that they have given back almost equal to the amount they have taken. In this way, it is a sustenance system.5 But what makes this site particularly interesting in this regard is the evolution of a subtitle “Pot” system by which users can contribute a portion of their accumulated positive ratio towards “funding” the subtitling of a previously unsubtitled foreign films. These pots are claimed by other users who are bi-lingual, and once the subtitling is completed and approved as high quality by those who began the pot, the transfer of credit occurs. This introduces true capital into what had been essentially a socialist system: those who have accumulated the capital to bid for subtitles are petitioning the labor of those who haven't, and are calling upon the particularly socially-relevant ability of bilingualism (or, skilled labor). While the socialist system doesn't seem to break down with the introduction of capital because the users all benefit from the the result of this capital trade (in the respect that the subtitle file becomes available to all, not just to those who paid for it), it is also imperative, as I will discuss later, to see fan-subtitling as a conflation of labor and leisure.
Marx was not a theorist who believed that the individual is completely powerless, just that the structure of capitalism does not benefit upward mobility because the system destroys itself if revolutionary action is successful.6 In that regard, KaraGarga is in highly interesting dialogue with Marx's theories as it blurs the boundaries between a socialist system and a capitalist system. Placed within the larger economic system, it challenges standardized modes of capital exchange by eliminating actual monetary exchange, but it certainly is not interested in toppling capital, for it relies on it for its very existence. Andersson notes that “despite being labeled 'anti-commercial' [p2p-based file sharing] still helps spread the mainstream products that the corporate establishment want us to consume.”7 While truer for The Pirate Bay, this still holds true for KaraGarga as well. To want to download and subtitle a film is first to want the film. In this sense, KaraGarga fits snugly into Marx's notion of the system needing both halves to survive, but complicates it in that, when placed within the external economic system, the success of the subaltern doesn't require the complete destruction of the capitalist system. It is a subversive movement which is wholly invested in the work being produced by capital, with hopes of expanding the visibility of particular products through covert downloading and subtitling.
The KaraGarga community, then, has brought to life a system that works with products of capital, expands those products culturally (through subtitling), but bypasses mainstream market flow in a subaltern manner. Through his writing is a useful counterpoint in contrasting the unique way in which the subaltern can seek happiness without annihilating capital, Marx can only take us so far in that KaraGarga still mostly functions in the space of leisure, and for only one purpose: disseminating predefined culture to its adherents. If Marx's writings and his notions of the “commodity fetish” weren't downright pessimistic about the agency of the modern, capitalist consumer to recognize and foster culture, Horkheimer and Adorno compensate for any deficit. To tackle the entirety of Horkheimer and Adorno's The Culture Industry would be too much for this short piece, but we can at least get at the notion that the thrust of Horkheimer and Adorno's argument is predicated on the idea that the consumer is powerless, and this is not simply a powerlessness that has come about through a direct, enforced imprisonment, but has permeated society in a much more mesmeric way: it is a dream-state imprisonment engendered by the homogenization of popular culture, where all culture is prescribed and spoon-fed, such that “people of today have already forgotten that there was ever a notion of what human life was.”8 These are grandiose words, but the two were writing at a time when the Hollywood system was in full-swing, and generic conventions were being adopted by other countries outside of American borders. Countries around the world had adopted quotas in an attempt to stave off the destruction of local sensibilities.9 Horkheimer and Adorno, as well as other writers of the Frankfurt school, were writing in reaction to these trends. Though existing many decades later, what we see in KaraGarga is an example of a private social node in which the users adhere to strict cultural guidelines. In looking at these citizens within the world economy, we can almost see them as participants in the fostering of “true” culture, in the torch-bearing Arnold/Leavis sense, which Horkheimer and Adorno were also afraid to lose (they extolled the “counterpart” of the Hollywood film: avant-garde art).10 KaraGarga exhibits exactly the kind of consumer dialogue that Horkheimer and Adorno saw as lacking in the space of radio and film (and certainly would have with television as well); it is, in a way, an avant-garde to RedBox, OnDemand, and other modes of distribution strictly tied to those who produce the media. In this space, the user is able to speak back to the product.
That act of speaking back has become the primary element of Henry Jenkins writings; his 21st Century individual (or, user) is empowered through technology. For Jenkins, global corporations have grown even stronger, larger, and omnipresent since the time of Marx, Horkheimer, and Adorno, but interactivity has likewise increased as the ability to control audio/visual products has loosened with digital media.11 Jenkins subtly pokes fun at the Frankfurt School when he notes that “the culture industry has its own reasons for encouraging active rather than passive, modes of consumption,” as if to dismantle the entire thesis of The Culture Industry in a single sentence.12 Indeed, in order to introduce participatory culture, the culture industry, as understood by Horkheimer and Adorno, must simply cease to exist. But what I think is important in the writing of Jenkins as it relates to KaraGarga (and to Marx, Horkheimer, and Adorno) is simply the humanity that these users possess: they are interacting with the audio/visual products because they love to do so. While Marx, Horkheimer, and Adorno saw any conflation of leisure and labor as a negative effect of capital exerting control over all areas of personhood, the users of KaraGarga (and Jenkins) adopt an idea of fan labor as an act of enjoyment. Other writers also contribute towards understanding the way such cultural interaction works in today's society. Ian Condry provides insight into what drives fan laborers (in this case, cinephiles), to do their work: “I argue that a useful way to reframe the debates about copyright and digital technology is to focus on something I propose calling 'dark energy,'” which Condry later defines as, “a collection of social forces that enliven the connections between content and desire that in turn drive the circulation of media.”13 KaraGarga fan subtitlers doing the heavy lifting that capital can't in helping to get into circulation these lesser-known, culturally-important works. In that capacity, they are doing exactly the work that Horkheimer and Adorno saw as impossible within a capitalist society. Perhaps what Marx, Horkheimer, and Adorno left unsaid in the wake of their all-consuming animosity for capital, and what Jenkins possibly overstates in his enthusiasm for any and all forms of cultural hodgepodge and recombination, is this idea of “dark energy,” which can be understood more simply as the energy of small, concerted collectives who share a real interest in something, coming together within a certain structure and finding creativity and happiness through that interest. Like KaraGarga, “dark energy” flows through and draws from, but doesn't destroy capital, and this human urge has surely has always existed in some capacity. Perhaps it is simply that the avenues for such communal collectivity have become non-geographic that allows Jenkins to be so much more optimistic about this energy, which most closely finds correlation in his work when he notes that fans respond to privatized culture “by applying...folk culture to mass culture...”14 Jenkins subject has agency, and desire, and interests that extend beyond the capitalist workplace, which also might be a reflection of continued improvements in working conditions (in first-world countries, that is) over the last 150 years.
For all of the above reasons – that it has found a truly functional economic system; that it is free; and that it expands the reach of culturally significant works – it is easy to adopt utopian thinking when talking about a site like KaraGarga. But there are multiple layers which must be kept in mind: that it is a virtual system which requires a real, external functional capitalist system within which to operate (it requires an internet connection, which requires a paid subscription or, at the very least, a store which has paid for internet); it requires already extant produced media; it adopts rules which dictate the type of culture that is allowed, and those decisions are often already established by cultural elites; and it requires leisure time in order to appreciate and participate to a full degree. These are all very loaded circumstances which suggest reliance on class and taste. One could almost say, then, that KaraGarga is simply a plaything of privileged classes, that any semblance of internal structure between classes is simply an illusion or a game, and there exists within it no representation of the true laborer. In many respects, and the attainment of higher ratio can very likely become a fetishistic beacon whose value becomes invested with more than it is worth in the eyes of the users. Subtitling, then, becomes merely another job in the digital world that has no value in the real world, not unlike the pursuit of digital minerals in online games such as World of Warcraft. Site-wide correlations can be made to this video game model in that ratio is granted in “accomplishment”-like levels: users begin simply and nondescriptly with the “User” class. With serious productivity, they move up to “Power User,” while particularly valued users can attain classes such as “VIP.” One can see this as simply another way to purvey the “myth of success” that keeps the modern subject, by proxy of KaraGarga, “enslaved.”15 This cloistered, purely virtual perspective gains further relevance when one observes what happens when items bought with the labor incentive of KaraGarga are exchanged for real-world currency. Threads on the KaraGarga message board are dedicated to the identification and banning of members who sell custom-made DVDs using the subtitles made with KaraGarga's pot system. One user, Kinsayder, notes:
“Of course, we're all pirates here, but I like to think that KG sits at the defensible end of P2P: a club of cinephiles sharing the treasures of their collection. It's an extension of what most of us were doing with snail-mail and on-to-one disc swapping before we joined. No profit, no real threat to the DVD industry, just a bunch of friends sharing movies. For someone to set up a gift shop on the side of it for their personal enrichment seems like, well, as Daeron said, a breach of etiquette.”16
The community wishes and needs to remain insular and usable only to its own and only in a non-moneyed way, despite the fact that the selling of copies furthers the reach of the cultural object. Legally more precarious than a library, but really not all that different, it's as if KaraGarga is filling in for an imaginary global filmic public library that corporate interests and copyright have thus far precluded.
The tight-knit community of film enthusiasts that make up KaraGarga have built and fostered a distribution model that remains elusive, insular, and dedicated to a fostering, perpetuation, and expansion upon filmic works deemed culturally viable. Although the participatory, willful nature of it is a repudiation of both Marx and Horkheimer/Adorno, the privileged position that one must first occupy in order to access and enjoy it helps to provide insight and clarity into the utopian discourses that have circulated around it, and reveal it to be a leisure system within a larger system of capital production. The work of fan-subtitlers do indeed speak to a particular kind of engagement with cultural objects, but they are also revealed as amusements for privileged peoples within this external system that produces culture. “Participatory culture” and “dark energy” are the undercurrents that give a human face and interactivity to the passive consumers of past theoreticians, but the notions of a disconnection from nature and “myths of success” continue to be relevant as users immerse themselves in unreal digital material. In all respects, KaraGarga occupies a fascinating realm in the history of institutions which disseminate culture, and as a subaltern economic model that has carved a semi-parasitic niche within a larger capitalist system in order to do so.
1 Marx, “Estranged Labor,” in Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1944, p. 73.
2 Cardoso et al., “P2P in the Networked Future of European Cinema,” p. 16.
3 Andersson, “For the Good of the Net...” p. 92
4 Dwyer and Uricaru, “Slashings and Subtitles,” p. 45.
5 Marx, “Estranged Labor,” in Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1944, p. 74.
6 Marx, “Alienation and Social Classes,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 74.
7 Andersson, “For the Good of the Net...” p. 92
8 Horkheimer and Adorno, “The Culture Industry,” in Dialectic of enlightenment, p. 69.
9 Maltby and Vasey, “Temporary American Citizens.”
10 Horkheimer and Adorno, “The Culture Industry,” in Dialectic of enlightenment, p. 57.
11 Jenkins, “Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars?” p. 457.
12 Jenkins, “Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars?” p. 459.
13 Condry, “Dark Energy,” p. 195.
14 Jenkins, “Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars?” p. 457.
15 Horkheimer and Adorno, “The Culture Industry,” in Dialectic of enlightenment, p. 59.
16 Kinsayder, “The Movie Detective” post, KaraGarga forums.
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Condry, Ian. 2010. “Dark Energy,” in Mechademia 5:193-208. University of Minnesota Press.
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Kinsayder (15 December 2011) The Movie Detective (msg 29). Message posted to https://forum.karagarga.net/index.php?showtopic=23161
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Created and Maintained by Stephen Russell, 2013