promiscuous materials 05.23.2007, 7:19 AM
posted by ben vershbow
This began as a quick follow-up to my post last week on Jonathan Lethem's recent activities in the area of copyright activism. But after a couple glasses of sake and some insomnia it mutated into something a bit bigger.
Back in March, Lethem announced that he planned to give away a free option on the film rights of his latest novel, You Don't Love Me Yet. Interested filmmakers were invited to submit a proposal outlining their creative and financial strategies for the project, provided that they agreed to cede a small cut of proceeds if the film ends up getting distributed. To secure the option, an artist also had to agree up front to release ancillary rights to their film (and Lethem, likewise, his book) after a period of five years in order to allow others to build on the initial body of work. Many proposals were submitted and on Monday Lethem granted the project to Greg Marcks, whose work includes the feature "11:14."
What this experiment does, and quite self-consciously, is demonstrate the curious power of the gift economy. Gift giving is fundamentally a ritual of exchange. It's not a one-way flow (I give you this), but a rearrangement of social capital that leads, whether immediately or over time, to some sort of reciprocation (I give you this and you give me something in return). Gifts facilitate social equilibrium, creating occasions for human contact not abstracted by legal systems or contractual language. In the case of an artistic or scholarly exchange, the essence of the gift is collaboration. Or if not a direct giving from one artist to another, a matter of influence. Citations, references and shout-outs are the acknowledgment of intellectual gifts given.
By giving away the film rights, but doing it through a proposal process which brought him into conversation with other artists, Lethem purchased greater influence over the cinematic translation of his book than he would have had he simply let it go, through his publisher or agent, to the highest bidder. It's not as if novelists and directors haven't collaborated on film adaptations before (and through more typical legal arrangements) but this is a significant case of copyright being put to the side in order to open up artistic channels, changing what is often a business transaction -- and one not necessarily even involving the author -- into a passing of the creative torch.
Another Lethem experiment with gift economics is The Promiscuous Materials Project, a selection of his stories made available, for a symbolic dollar apiece, to filmmakers and dramatists to adapt or otherwise repurpose.
One point, not so much a criticism as an observation, is how experiments such as these -- and you could compare Lethem's with Cory Doctorow's, Yochai Benkler's or McKenzie Wark's -- are still novel (and rare) enough to serve doubly as publicity stunts. Surveying Lethem's recent free culture experiments it's hard not to catch a faint whiff of self-congratulation in it all. It's oh so hip these days to align one's self with the Creative Commons and open source culture, and with his recent foray into that arena Lethem, in his own idiosyncratic way, joins the ranks of writers shrewdly riding the wave of the Web to reinforce and even expand their old media practice. But this may be a tad cynical. I tend to think that the value of these projects as advocacy, and in a genuine sense, gifts, outweighs the self-promotion factor. And the more I read Lethem's explanations for doing this, the more I believe in his basic integrity.
It does make me wonder, though, what it would mean for "free culture" to be the rule in our civilization and not the exception touted by a small ecstatic sect of digerati, some savvy marketers and a few dabbling converts from the literary establishment. What would it be like without the oppositional attitude and the utopian narratives, without (somewhat paradoxically when you consider the rhetoric) something to gain?
In the end, Lethem's open materials are, as he says, promiscuities. High-concept stunts designed to throw the commodification of art into relief. Flirtations with a paradigm of culture as old as the Greek epics but also too radically new to be fully incorporated into the modern legal-literary system. Again, this is not meant as criticism. Why should Lethem throw away his livelihood when he can prosper as a traditional novelist but still fiddle at the edges of the gift economy? And doesn't the free optioning of his novel raise the stakes to a degree that most authors wouldn't dare risk? But it raises hypotheticals for the digital age that have come up repeatedly on this blog: what does it mean to be a writer in the infinitely reproducible non-commodifiable Web? what is the writer after intellectual property?
McKenzie Wark on May 23, 2007 11:54 AM:
What is the writer after intellectual property? Hopefully not the same as the writer before intellectual property -- dependent on patrons, etc.
While hardly a neutral party on this, i would argue that its a good thing that there are still publicity stunts to be staged by playing around with the gift economy of culture. If the new culture were to rely only on people being saints then it is not going to amount to much. It has to work to make people's vanity and ambition coincide with the public good.
It might, in any case, be more about new relations between commodity and gift than the replacement of commodity with gift outright. The paradox is that if a lot of people get their hands on free or almost-free copies of the writing, and decide they like it, then the thing that becomes more and more scarce is the actual body of the writer.
Lethem has probably figured out that the money is in appearances...
Jesse Wilbur on May 23, 2007 5:42 PM:
"Gift giving is fundamentally a ritual of exchange. It's not a one-way flow (I give you this), but a rearrangement of social capital that leads, whether immediately or over time, to some sort of reciprocation (I give you this and you give me something in return)"
I think you're close, but in the end, gift giving in the 'gift economy' isn't about reciprocation between the original parties, but about encouraging generosity from the community. It's when the giving moves beyond the scope of two or a few people to reach many that it begins to take on real power, and can present itself as an alternative to capital driven economy.
bowerbird on May 23, 2007 8:05 PM:
readers and writers are synergistic, and know it...
so in the future (and it won't be very long from now),
the entire exchange between them will be gift-based,
with the readers return-gifting cash to the writers...
even the writers that want to cling to the old model
(of readers paying _before_ they've read the book,
just for the privilege of receiving a copy to read),
will not be able to do so, because they will have to
compete -- for the free time of the readers -- with
newfangled writers who will give away their e-book
(because they don't want to jump through the hoops
to have their work be accepted by the publishers,
but rather just want to have their story be heard).
once a critical mass of high-quality work is available
for free, the power to command a fee will evaporate...
this is especially true once _collaborative_filtering_
succesfully separates the wheat from the chaff for us.
(a job that publishers used to do for us instead, until
they decided it was easier to use hype to sell us chaff.)
in comparison to the paltry advances that most authors get
(and the absence of royalities, or "monkey points"), i'd say
that most authors will come out ahead with this new model.
i've written this up rather extensively, back in 2005:
ben vershbow on May 23, 2007 11:56 PM:
"...in the end, gift giving in the 'gift economy' isn't about reciprocation between the original parties, but about encouraging generosity from the community."
I'd say it's about both!
bowerbird on May 24, 2007 3:01 AM:
how about the beginning of the end of the idea of property?
that's something i could cheer about.
and the end of line-drawing on the map that gives us nations?
that's another thing we could live without. (literally.)
heck, even a release from scarcity would be a nice change.
updating proudhon's "property is theft", how about
"intellectual property is intellectual theft"?
of course, corporate overlords -- who are using these
wedge issues to split the masses for fun and profit
-- will not let us slip their chains so easily, no sir...
they realize the age of ubiquituous media is upon us
-- heck, they're the ones who gave the ok to the plan --
and know they can't make d.r.m. work to _control_ the
usage, so -- as chomsky would be quick to point out --
they will settle instead for _containing_the_terrain_...
which means they'll soon be instituting plans for
an "all you can eat" approach to media that extracts
a healty gabelle from each of us to feed their greed.