On Sharing

By Wolfgang Sützl

When we say we share, what are we actually referring to? What kind of action is sharing? What do we know about it as something different from any form of exchange, economic or symbolic?

The short answer is: not much. The popularization of the word since the advent of Web 2.0 stands in stark contrast to the lack of research on the subject. There are a number of reasons for this. For one, as consumer researcher Russell Belk states, (1) sharing is something so ubiquitous that we take it for granted and do not deem it worthy of investigation. We never seem to experience that momentary friction, that discontinuity, that would motivate us to ask questions. Moreover, sharing is typically associated with the intimate, private sphere, with the “home, rather than the exterior world of work and the market.” As a result, the gender biases of all ages have done much to remove sharing from the visibility range of contemporary social sciences. Furthermore, sharing has remained obscure because of rationalist assumptions about human behaviour. Thinking that we tend to act out of selfish motivations has meant that we thought we could understand most behaviours in terms of exchange: we give something in order to get something back, we do something because we get something out of it. We establish equivalencies between values. But sharing eludes this assumption, it cannot be grasped in terms of rationality or exchange.

The research that does help us to understand what happens in sharing has therefore mostly done by people critical of the mainstream economics, both of the capitalist and socialist kind. In her 1990 book Governing the Commons,(2) Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom drew attention to the institutional frameworks of sharing natural resources. In many parts of the world, the commons existed long before the advent of private ownership, and they continue to exist outside of both government or market control. Ostrom found that commons is governed because the people who use it share it. The commons is therefore a fundamentally political institution. It limits economic exchange without putting the symbolic exchange typical of government in its place. However, in doing so, sharing places itself outside of the interplay between these two types of exchange that marks much of our contemporary political landscape. Typically, we see pressures towards privatization and free markets on the one hand, and calls for government regulations and legislation to counter these pressures on the other hand. Sharing takes on its meaning outside of both these systems of exchange.

Impossible Exchange

Jean Baudrillard referred to the outside of exchange simply as “impossible exchange.”(3) He insisted that there is a universal drive towards exchangeability, and that exchange had become a moral requirement. Baudrillard’s interest was not in sharing per se, but he made the limits of exchange visible like few other writers. Introducing the concept of symbolic exchange, Baudrillard showed how the principle of exchange is present in culture itself, and not limited to the economic sphere. In one form or another, the principle of exchange has formed the modern view of the world and its institutions. Our very understanding of what is true and what is false came to be based on the exchangeability of the referred and the referrer, leading to the scientific worldview where the measurement becomes exchangeable with the measured object. Ever since the 17th century, our modern states have been based on an exchange of security against freedom. All of these systems of exchange have become interchangeable amongst themselves, so that for instance the political power wielded by a government may do the same things in society as corporations seeking to maximize their profits. The entire neoliberal globalization would not function without this possibility.

The roots of this structural affinity between economic exchange and morality run deep in western culture. They were originally not considered two distinct spheres at all.(4) Peter Sloterdijk traces these metaphysical foundations of exchange to the early scriptures in the Judeo-Christian traditions.(5) Here, the principle of eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—justice as an exchange of equivalencies—substitutes a previous spiraling principle of revenge (“seven deaths to be revenged by seventy-seven”). But the “compulsive use of the schema of equivalence”(6) as both a moral and economic principle means that forgiveness, and ultimately loss itself, are lost. A world based on exchange is an unforgiving world because it progressively eliminates the possibility, and even the very symbols and cultural narratives of loss: or that which ultimately can no longer be exchanged, redeemed, resolved. Where everything must be exchangeable, the concept of loss has no meaning, or rather, given that this very losing of even loss is less and less possible as the principle of exchange spreads, the negativity of loss gives way to the violence of an unfettered positivity.(7) While the ‘loser’ ends up in the position of the social outcast because he/she is unable or unwilling to succumb to the demands of this schema, contemporary western culture generates discourses of sheer positivity and affirmation fueled by countless ‘likes’ in the social media every second of the day. It has become increasingly difficult to say things like ‘death,’ ‘absence,’ or ‘pain’ in a meaningful way. Today, no one is allowed to be a loser. As we measure our fitness level and performance on our mobile devices, as everyone is warned to never stop learning, to never lose any time, to engage in a permanent spiral of self-improvement, to remain healthy and happy, the principle of exchange has established itself in our bodies and minds.

Bataille’s Anti-economy

Given the depth of the cultural and historical roots of exchange, it is not surprising that it took Nietzsche, the most radical critic of western metaphysics, to prepare a thinking that risks the discomfort of enquiring into the origins of principle of exchange. His was a thinking that did not shy back from being called irrational in its interrogation of rationalism. Nietzsche’s passionate attack against European morality, present in his entire oeuvre, is at its core a critique of the violence inherent in any system of equivalence. And although Nietzsche did not attack capitalism per se, his destruction of the moral edifice on which capitalism was built has remained without equal. Marx’ critique of capitalism, on the other hand, was narrowed down to questions of ownership by many of his interpreters and political advocates, who remained convinced that once the means of production are no longer in the hands of the private bourgeois, the economy of exchange could be put to good use. Their criticism of capitalism, although explicit, did not reach its roots in exchange and how exchange crosses the boundary between the economic and the political and moral spheres. It was this boundary that lay at the basis of Georges Bataille’s theoretical work around a “general economy.”(8)

Bataille was among the first to see Nietzsche’s criticism of western morality and its spirit of retribution as a criticism of the capitalist market economy. Like others of his period, Bataille was unhappy with the predominance of a narrowly economic conception of Marxism that did little to question the dominance of the exchange principle, let alone its moral underpinnings. But in the price for a merchandise, the fee for a service, the returns on an investment, are a rather literal manifestation of what Nietzsche called the ‘eternal recurrence of the same.’ Bataille understood that the dominance of exchange obscured that part of culture that is not governed by this principle because they cannot be. It moves that part of the culture into the dark, hence Bataille’s interest in the obscure, the forbidden, the atrocious, and the amorphous. According to him, there is an inevitable ‘squander,’ in the solar universe, an expenditure without expectation or even possibility of return. Bataille refers to this necessary squander that arises from solar energy and governs nature as the part maudite, the accursed share. He insists that nature generates more energy than can use for growth, and he explains death as nature’s luxury: beings die of natural causes because they are in excess. In culture, he saw the accursed share present in sacrifice, luxury, death, sports, in non-reproductive sex, and of course in art—that is, in all forms that yield no return because they remain outside of exchange and are not to be exchanged.

Part of Bataille’s idea of a general economy is that he considers excess, not scarcity, the fundamental problem of an economy. This is where his critique applies directly to digital culture. As Yochai Benkler stated in The Wealth of Networks, digital files “are replicated wherever they are wanted, and thereby made more ubiquitous, not scarce.”(9) It is in the nature of digital networks themselves to generate more than will be deleted, and that the use of data is divested from any consumption. In a digital network thus characterized, a system of equivalencies is impossible, and scarcity reveals itself as a social construction when access restrictions are technologically implemented, as for example in DRM (Digital Rights Management).

Sharing and Existence

There is another key meaning of sharing, which becomes clear in digital culture: the communicative and intimate dimension of sharing.(10) We cannot share without communicating, and without putting our own selves, our own being into play. When we say we ‘share’ something on a social networking site, for example, we mean we provide information about ourselves, or someone passes on information about us, typically personal information. The notion of ‘oversharing,’ used to describe the conflict between intimacy and large audiences, reveals this intimate nature of sharing, while also reminding us of the Bataillian grounding of sharing in excess and of his fascination with intimacy as the “passion of an absence of individuality.”(11) It is this connection to intimacy, and thus with the limitations and fragility of our bodies, that represents an inner limitation of sharing. So while sharing as a political act limits exchange, it is itself limited through the finitude of existence, through what Heidegger called “being towards death.” This is why sharing ceases to be sharing when we think of it as a large-scale project, or we cease to be the kind of beings we are, which is what happens in ‘oversharing.’ One way of understanding this is that sharing merges having and being. It has been described as a form of interaction in which being dominates over having, reversing Erich Fromm’s thesis that in contemporary western culture being is determined by having.(12) This would make sharing an existential experience, and remind us that the world, and the meanings we may generate by virtue of having a world, is already a shared world. It is quite impossible to think of the world any other way, which is why Heidegger has defined existence as mit-sein, or “being-with.” No one can exist as a cultural being and not share.

These anti-economic, political and existential meanings make up the core of sharing. They make it an activity in which we create ourselves as communities of beings before we do anything else.

Wolfgang Sützl is a philosopher, media theorist, and linguist. He is currently based at Ohio University’s School of Media Arts & Studies. He is a faculty of Transart Institute and at the MA program in Peace and Conflict Transformation at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. His chief research interests concern political media theories, media aesthetics, conflict, and cultural translation.

The text has been commissioned by Kunsthal Aarhus in conjunction with the launch of COLLECTIVE MAKING, the new artistic programme 2015-2016 and the first exhibition in the programme Extreme Sharing by N55.


(1) Belk, Russel (2010). “Sharing.” Journal of Consumer Research, 36, 715-734.
(2) Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the Commons. Cambridge: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(3) Baudrillard, Jean (2003). Passwords. London: Verso.
(4) The German language reminds us of this when it uses the same word for ‘guilt’ and ‘debt’ (Schuld). In English forgive is applied to both the forgiveness of both economic debt and of moral infractions.
(5) Sloterdijk, Peter (2010). Rage and Time. New York: Columbia University Press.
(6) Ibid., p. 30.
(7) Han, Byung-Chul (2011). Topologie der Gewalt. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.
(8) Bataille, Georges (1988). The Accursed Share. An Essay on General Economy. New York: Zone Books.
(9) Benkler, Yochai (2006). The Wealth of Networks. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
(10) On sharing and intimacy, cf. the early piece by Price, John A. (1975). “Sharing: The Integration of Intimate Economies.” Anthropoligica, 17, 1, pp. 3-27.
(11) Bataille, Georges (1998). Essential Writings. Ed. by Michael Richardson. London: Sage 1998.
(12) Cf. Fromm, Erich (1976). To Have or to Be? New York: Harper & Row, and Orjiukwu, Remigius (2010): “Teilen. Höhepunkt menschlicher existentieller Selbstentfaltung.” In: Gimesi, Thomas and Werner Hanselitsch (eds.) (2010): Geben, Nehmen, Tauschen. Wien, Berlin: Lit Verlag. pp. 151-169.