Sunday, September 18, 2011

The ecstasy of Influence: Stuffed animals & texual poaching

My first stuffed toy
In 2007 Jonathan Lethem published a pro-plagiarism, plagiarized essay in Harper's titled, The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.⁠1 It's a lengthy defense and history of how ideas in literature have been shared, riffed, culled, reused, recycled, swiped, stolen, quoted, lifted, duplicated, gifted, appropriated, mimicked, and pirated for as long as literature has existed. 
Lethem reminds us of how gift economies, open-source cultures, and public commons have been vital for the creation of new works, with themes from older works forming the basis for new ones… 
He eloquently rails against copyright law as a threat to the lifeblood of creativity. From Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons to Muddy Waters's blues tunes, he showcases the rich fruits of shared culture. 
Under the spell of The Ecstasy of Influence, everything I have written so far is not out of my head but copied from “It’s Not Plagiarism In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing” by Kenneth Goldsmith.
Certainly, it is good writing but that's not the point that Goldsmith – and, by extension, Lethem –are trying to make. The point is: Lethem's fine writing did not come out of his head either!
The punchline? Nearly every word and idea was borrowed from somewhere else—either appropriated in its entirety or rewritten by Lethem. His essay is an example of "patchwriting," a way of weaving together various shards of other people's words into a tonally cohesive whole.⁠2 
Goldsmith goes on to explain the method behind their madness: 
With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.
Goldsmith quotes prominent literary critic Majorie Perloff who has recently begun using the term "unoriginal genius" to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated…
She posits that today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.
Of course, that’s what active readers have always done. And that's the way it should be! The actual, literal quote from a person's writing isn't – in and of itself – what is important; it's how it is used by the audience.
Active reading is an impertinent raid on the literary preserve. Readers are like nomads, poaching their way across fields they do not own—artists are no more able to control the imaginations of their audiences than the culture industry is able to control second uses of its artifacts. 
In the children's classic The Velveteen Rabbit, the old Skin Horse offers the Rabbit a lecture on the practice of textual poaching. 
The value of a new toy lies not it its material qualities (not “having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle”), the Skin Horse explains, but rather in how the toy is used. 
“Real isn't how you are made. . . . It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” 
The Rabbit is fearful, recognizing that consumer goods don't become “real” without being actively reworked: “Does it hurt?” 
Reassuring him, the Skin Horse says: “It doesn't happen all at once. . . . You become. It takes a long time. . . . Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” 
Seen from the perspective of the toymaker, the Velveteen Rabbit's loose joints and missing eyes represent vandalism, signs of misuse and rough treatment; for others, these are marks of its loving use.
1 Harper’s Magazine, February 2007.
http://harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081387
2  “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing..” by Kenneth Goldsmith published in the Chronicle Review, 9/11/11
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