We can’t stop talking about Jonathan Lethem’s essay in this month’s Harper’s. If you haven’t read it, you really should. Nothing that follows in this post will be nearly as interesting. Go ahead. And this post will still be here when you return. You know you want to.
Nearly every word of this essay about cultural borrowing and reworking was stolen — er, appropriated — from some other source and then cobbled together with a big dose of Lethem magic to form a cohesive whole. Even the “I”s aren’t Jonathan Lethem; they’re Jonathan Rosen writing in The Talmud and the Internet about John Donne, or William Gibson in a Wired article about William Burroughs, or David Foster Wallace on a grad school seminar, or Brian Wilson in a Beach Boys song.
But this is more than a stunt. It’s a passionate salvo in the copyright wars, a crowd of voices coralled together to say, basically: without borrowing, stealing, cribbing, remixing, mashing-up, collaging and compiling — without influences great and small, in other words — there is no “creating.” No hip hop, sure, but also no blues, no Disney, no Shakespeare. No Lolita or “I have a dream.” We’d be reduced to staring at campfires and barking at one another.
So how to think about the joys, perils, and contradictions of influence in our intellectual property age? Lethem wonders himself:
I pay rent with the price my words bring when published in glossy magazines and at the same moment offer them for almost nothing to impoverished literary quarterlies, or speak them for free into the air in a radio interview. So what are they worth?
Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence, Harper’s, February 2007
What are those words — or notes, or brush strokes, or abstract ideas — worth? Who owns them? (And what does ownership mean?) And for how long?
- Author, Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, and the forthcoming You Don’t Love Me Yet, among many others
- Associate Professor of Culture and Communication, New York University
- Founding member, Negativland
- Extra Credit Reading
- You can find Greta’s Mother of All Reading Lists here. She spent all day on it. It will make her very happy if you go check it out.
Mark Hosler of Negativland was kind enough to send me a few MP3 from their latest album, No Business. I asked him if he’d mind if we posted them on site. His reply: “I don’t give a s**t what you do with them!” Well, this is what we’re doing:
As a writer I inherit one set of assumptions about copying or borrowing, or what’s called plagiarism, but as a music fan, someone who adores sampling and quotation and allusion in the music I listen to, and as a fan of collage and appropriation in the visual arts, many of the artists I grew up liking in these different realms were instinctive plagiarists, by the standards that I often see applied within the literary arts.
I was trained first as a painter, and I came to think of things along those lines, whereas so many other writers come out of either academic writing first, where they’ve written a lot within the context of academy — they’ve written a dissertation or innumerable papers before they begin writing fiction or something that’s outside of that framework — or they work as journalists — they do a lot of stuff within the journalistic context. Now, if you look at what writers inherit from the context of the academy and from journalism, there’s a lot of emphasis put on the ethics of copying. Everyone’s very conscious that to be a proper student you musn’t plagiarize. And everyone’s conscious that to be a good working journalist, you musn’t cobble together your pieces too much or too obviously from preexisting journalism. I didn’t think that way. I thought, to be a good artist you’re probably going to be cobblig together stuff from all sorts of sources, because every artist I admired seemed to do that.
What we think of as open source is is basically culture. It’s how human beings have organized themselves, communicated with each other, joined each other, forged identities, and most importantly, grooved and danced, for centuries. This is basically how people have always dealt with each other. It’s just in recent years we’ve imposed these interesting cages — legal cages, psychological cages, ethical cages — around this level of sharing.
Then we have, in the public discourse, a blending of anxieties about plagiarism and anxieties about copyright infringement, which are in fact two very different acts. Plagiarism is an ethical abrogation. It’s one in which you violate the norms of in interpretive community or a creative community, either a group of academics or scientists, or a group of poets or songwriters, and each of these communities has its own set of rules, as Jonathan explained. And when it comes right down to it, what we think of as plagiarism, the theft of ideas, is actually something that falls outside of copyright. Copyright does not protect ideas.
It feels like you’re having this really conversational dialogue with this mass culture that’s being shoved down your throat whether you like it or not, and why do I need to ask permission to do that? No one asked me permission to put up a Pepsi billboard near my home. So I’m not sure why I have to ask permission to take some part of a Pepsi ad and cut it up. In a way, it’s a very common sense argument.
The lawyers actually hired a forensic musicologist to go through the tune and discover what exactly had been stolen, if anything. And his conclusion was: well, there is a case that “Shake Your Bon-Bon” is taken from “Super Bon Bon,” however, we are certain that it’s an exact rip of “Shake Your Groove Thing,” the old disco song. So I didn’t get any money.
I think it’s terribly important that artists remember to be grateful for their engagement with an ongoing cultural discourse, that they came from somewhere, and their stuff — if they’re lucky — will be entered into the language of culture and become useful to others.