jonathan lethem: the ecstasy of influence 02.14.2007, 6:41 AM
posted by ben vershbow
If you haven't already, check out Jonathan Lethem's essay in the latest issue of Harper's on the trouble with copyright. Nothing particularly new to folks here, but worth reading all the same -- an elegant meditation by an elegant writer (and a fellow Brooklynite) on the way that all creativity is actually built on appropriation, reuse or all-out theft:
Any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The citations that go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas. The kernel, the soul--let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances--is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks?
sebastian mary on February 14, 2007 6:52 AM:
'Originality' is a literary convention that in widespread form is about 300 years old and firmly tethered to the economics of the indistrial print era.
Translation, imitation and appropriation were considered legitimate artistic activities for a long time (see, for example, notes about imitatio as a pedagogical technique here: http://rhetoric.byu.edu/Pedagogy/Imitation.htm).
Various forms of imitation, appropriation, quotation and so on can be found everywhere in literature pretty much up to the point where mass printing began to take off. The new economic possibilities that created helped drive a conception of Authorship that - arguably at least in part for the purposes of justifying a book's sale price - separates the creation of each individual writer sharply from any previous work.
If meditations on the role of appropriation, pastiche and so on keep cropping up everywhere these days their increasing prevalence is strongly connected to the development of new communicatons media that do not lend themselves to these kinds of demarcation, and push strongly against the notions of 'copyright' that attended them. Rather, as the Web matures, its emerging economic structures call increasingly for a reimagining of who and what a writer is that looks beyond notions of originality and the attendant enclosure and authorially-branded commercialisation of knowledge.
ben vershbow on February 14, 2007 5:01 PM:
Well said. I think I'll use that...;)
Thinking about authors as brands... when you look at the semiotics of book covers, especially in fiction, where the idea of the writer as a sui generis creative force seems to be particularly entrenched, the more mass-market a book is -- say a Dan Brown, Patricia Cornwell or a John Grisham -- the bigger the type spelling out the author's name -- often as big as the title itself, if not bigger. But things get confused with more "serious" fiction as critics' blurbs begin to crowd the front and back covers, frequently wielding comparisons to other writers, placing the author in a continuum. The recognition of influence is undoubtedly there, lapping at the edges of the authorial myth, but it's submerged, smoothed down to a mere brand affinity. Surfing the canon is just comparison shopping.
JoseAngel on February 15, 2007 1:30 PM:
OK, quoting and stealing and reusing, everybody does that every time we open our mouth (we don't actually invent language); but there are kinds and modes and contexts and limits to theft and reuse and illegal appropriation... and it's there, in the specifics and the details, that debate takes place and ethical and legal issues can be raised. You cannot foreclose debate about originality etc. with a grand sweeping argument that levels all cases.