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Another slant on Aaron Swartz

Author details her experience of getting open access to a scholarly archive that had been locked away from the public.

Last Modified: 25 Mar 2013 15:03
Deborah Esch

Deborah Esch is a professor of literature at the University of Toronto. Her books include The Brevity of Life: What AIDS Makes Legible; and In the Event: Reading Journalism, Reading Theory. She currently serves on the steering committee of Advox and is an author with Global Voices Online.
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Internet activist and programmer Aaron Swartz, who helped create an early version of RSS and later played a key role in stopping a controversial online piracy bill in Congress, committed suicide in New York in early January [Reuters]

"Ah, it must be desolate and sad to outlive one's own heart," wrote the author of a handful of ground-breaking works, published early in the 19th century, shortly before he joined a recent acquaintance in a meticulously planned suicide pact and carried it out, by all accounts, to the letter.

Among many other things, certainly, I thought a lot about Heinrich von Kleist, and re-read some of his work, as I tried to make sense of the devastating news of the suicide of Aaron Swartz and of the events that led to that premature and apparently senseless ending.

At a loss, I plumbed the reserves of several decades of reading, teaching and writing about literature and the history of philosophy in an attempt to locate at least one example, a telling instance from the (possibly) remote past that would illuminate this episode from the proximate past that seemed pointless, without reason. 

As I pored over news reports, editorials, blogs (including Aaron's own), videos of Aaron speaking at conferences and rallies, I was also pulling books off my shelves, returning to pages and passages annotated over the course of multiple readings, marginalia layered as palimpsest. 

From Kleist (who had always been my go-to guy on suicide, having not just staged it repeatedly in his work but performed it himself), I reverted to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had such a manifold impact on subsequent generations of writers.

One of the protagonists in his epistolary novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Heloise, finding that his "soul is oppressed with the weight of life", delivers an impassioned argument for the human right to "willful death":

"The more I reflect on it, the more I find that the question comes down to this fundamental proposition: to seek what is good and flee what is ill for oneself insofar as it offends no one else is the right of nature. When our life is an ill for us and a good for no one then it is therefore permissible to deliver oneself of it."

Rousseau's St Preux concludes his case with an invitation to his interlocutor to join him in the kind of suicide pact in which Kleist would later (in the aftermath of his own reading of Rousseau) enlist his new friend.

In the event, St Preux, whose "life" as a fictional character is arguably more dispensable, goes on to live another day - but not before summoning for his reader the spectre of Cato, the Roman warrior (and thorn in the side of Caesar) whose gruesome suicide is immortalised in Plutarch.

Perhaps naively, I was still in quest of an example that might throw Aaron's final act into relief. Possibly biography and historiography would furnish what literature, thus far, had not. Like most people on the planet, I don't happen to own a copy of Plutarch's Lives, so I logged on in order to refresh my memory of the details of his account of (the in many ways exemplary) Cato. 

"Some impressions are everlasting; neither time nor care can erase them. The wound heals, but the mark remains, and this mark is an honourable seal that protects the heart from another blow."

- St Preux, Rousseau's character 

Here is what happened next: My Google search for "Plutarch life of Cato" turned up a link to Jstor - the "digital library of academic journals, books and primary sources" that Aaron had infamously hacked from a closet at MIT, downloading onto his laptop the numerous files that would shortly thereafter result in his indictment by the district attorney for Massachusetts.

What first caught my eye on the Jstor site was a page dated January 12, 2013, expressing "heartfelt condolences to Aaron's family, friends, and everyone who loved, know and admired him". The "statement" expresses tacit solidarity with Aaron's unswerving aim of open access, but with a caveat:

"At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content" (a club of which I happen to be a member).

Resigned to retracing the familiar route of accessing the archive through my institution's subscription to Jstor - the only way that I, a lifelong academic and researcher, had ever accessed "their" material - I was startled to find that I could now register as an individual user, via a simple username and password, and pull up (for example) "Cato's Suicide in Plutarch", from a volume of the journal Classical Quarterly published in 2007. 

It would cost $19 to download, but I could read it online for nothing. Moreover, I could keep three items on my very own Jstor shelf for at least 14 days. Gradually regaining my balance in the aftermath of this paradigm shift, I went on to read Plutarch's graphic and deeply biased account of Cato's final hours, and then perused several critical takes on Plutarch while maintaining space on my virtual shelf for whatever I might require in the near future.

Along the way, I found that I was no longer in search of an example - in literature, in historiography - a figure to help come to terms with the death of Aaron Swartz. I had my example: had it as an experience, the unexpected experience of open access to a scholarly archive that had till then been locked away from the public behind the monolithic gates of one institution or another. 

And I recalled a passage from another letter of St Preux's - this one written from the privileged position of the survivor:

"Some impressions are everlasting; neither time nor care can erase them. The wound heals, but the mark remains, and this mark is an honourable seal that protects the heart from another blow."

Deborah Esch is a professor of literature at the University of Toronto. Her books include The Brevity of Life: What AIDS Makes Legible; and In the Event: Reading Journalism, Reading Theory. She currently serves on the steering committee of Advox and is an author with Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @bsovereign

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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