Foucault-L, 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:­sic.clas­si­cal started in June 1987;­mod­ern 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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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 IATHs 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

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