Commons as Air

If you are interested in the idea of commons you might want to know that Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, who is at the GC this year from Northeastern University, recently put out a book on the commons called New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World 1649-1849 (Duke University Press, 2014). I read the intro to New World Drama as part of Eric Lott’s class, in which Dillon came to speak a little about her book. As I understood it, the gist of her argument is that after the commons were enclosed during the eponymous “age of enclosure” the imaginative space the commons provided moved to the theater. Whereas the commoner once had the right to enjoy the benefits of the commons, he now had the right to enjoy the theater as a substitute for that space. In Dillon’s engaging talk she mentioned the riots and fights that would occur semi-regularly at theaters if the audience didn’t like the actor or the play. In fact, the audience had so much power that it could not only eat, drink, and talk during the play, it could even shout at the actors to repeat exciting scenes or skip boring ones! Dillon mentioned one incident in NYC in which a regicide was enacted on stage: the American audience become so enthused it stormed the stage to literally attack the actor playing the king. This was all new and exciting information to me, and if you’re interested in learning about the commons and theater then I’d recommend Dillon’s book as a way to continue this discussion.

But right now I’d like to talk a little about the chapters of Commons as Air by Lewis Hyde, who is a professor of writing at Kenyon College. I really enjoyed reading the chapters, which I thought blended history and criticism together in a smooth, persuasive style. Particularly I was interested in his conception of a “stinted commons.” Unlike the neo-liberal rendering of the commons in Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” Hyde used well deployed historical details to show the commons was closely regulated by the commoners who “beat the bounds” and by the natural sense of fellowship between commons-users. I thought this was a great point, and Hyde used his historical evidence without turning Hardin into a straw man. In fact, Hyde demonstrated Hardin’s ecological good intentions and explained how Hardin’s theory does apply to fishing. Hyde’s generous reading retrieves the commons as a space of opposition to capitalism’s notion of unbridled growth, yet Hyde is not dogmatic enough to argue the commons are anti-capitalist. He shows that Scottish printers used the commons to ignite the marketplace during the Enlightenment.

While it is flexible, I do really appreciate Hyde’s focus on the commons as a potential antidote to limitless growth. David Harvey, among others, has shown that capitalism relies on continued growth to survive. As Hardin tried to argue in “Tragedy of the Commons,”  the environment cannot support limitless growth. Hardin may have been wrong to point the finger at the commons as a cause of that metastasis, but he was right that our natural resources are running out. However, I’ve heard the argument that “ideas” never run down, and thus capitalism can continue to grow and survive by generating more new ideas and profiting off them. But I believe Hyde has a subtle refutation for this point. He quotes Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s point that record companies only sell the container of an idea, not the idea itself. I think this is a great counter-argument against the neo-liberal idea that capitalism can continue to grow on ideas instead of material. How can the market grow on ideas when it only sells containers? But still, Hyde walks the line of nuance, and is flexible enough to incorporate many other points besides rank anti-capitalism in his piece. He merely shows the commons has the possibility to oppose that kind of growth, but also has much more besides.