Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields, Alfred A. Knopf, 240 pages
By Scott Galupo
A character in Axolotl Roadkill, by the young German writer Helene Hegemann, declares that “Berlin is here to mix everything with everything”—a line that could serve as a credo of the creative arts in the post-privacy age.
Nothing is hidden; everything is assimilable. Content can no longer be owned; indeed, it “wants” to be free.
Staid notions of copyright, against the onslaught of what Harvard University’s Larry Lessig has called “remix culture,” are like territorial borders on a map rendered outdated by war. As the business of duplicating books, recordings, and movies becomes less lucrative, so the temptation to poach them—or choice bits of them—become harder to resist.
Pat Aufderhide, the director of American University’s Center for Social Media, described to me the casual attitude that the millennial generation brings to bear on media content. They “naturalize humanly-created work,” she said. “Sometimes it even comes as a shock to students that a regular person actually created their textbook.”
Against them, a stubborn old guard has emerged. Last year, the novelist Mark Helprin, for instance, published a book, Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto, arguing for current copyright law, with its royalty-protecting reach of 70 years beyond an author’s death, as the only bulwark against the hordes of the lawless Web.
But collapse or eliminate that 70-year waiting period, and think of the thousand titles of fan-generated fiction that would bloom. The “monster mash-up” genre, brainchild of writer Seth Grahame-Smith, places vampires and zombies into the milieu of Abraham Lincoln’s America and Regency Britain. A rejiggering of intellectual property law might yield similar invasions into the story worlds of recently departed authors like John Updike (Rabbit, Run from Vampires!) or still living writers like Don DeLillo (Zombie Underworld).
As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in a middle-ground reply to Helprin: Why can’t we “leave the the [George] Lucas family the right to Star Wars, but not the right to prevent me from writing my own competing version of Anakin Skywalker’s life story”?
Such practical questions cut to the quick of theories of artistic production. Is all art, as Picasso said, theft? Is every artist, at bottom, a kind of mosaic rearranger, working with borrowed bits of glass? Or does the artist create something truly new ex nihilo? Over the last 10 years, the rise of the Internet has lent the issue both a moral and financial urgency.
In the face of the wildfire that is the decline of copyright—and the resultant haze around the meaning of creativity in the digital age—the writer David Shields, with his high-minded stunt of a book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, means to be a stiff, oxygenating breeze.
The book is cleverly and engagingly structured as a series of proverbs about the nature of creativity and the necessity of appropriation. But—and here’s where things get controversial—most of his pearls of wisdom are the words, sometimes slightly altered, of other authors. The point of the exercise, as Shields sees it, is that 21st-century writers shouldn’t have to bother informing readers when this is the case. (Though at his publisher’s request, he provided a list of citations in an appendix—and thus, begrudgingly, avoided charges of plagiarism.)
Plenty of professional scribblers, including Jonathan Lethem, Christopher Hitchens, and Steven Pinker, have spoken out against the excessive opprobrium that’s often heaped on exposed plagiarists. But no one, not even Shields, advocates dispensing with the standard altogether. Indeed, Reality Hunger is clearly addressed to the community of creative writers—pointedly not to historians, scientists, or appellate judges.
Shields suffers from what might be called platform envy. He argues that remix culture is as old art itself, and he wants the world of literature to experience the same kind of liberation that visual artists and rappers have enjoyed for decades by freely mixing elements from earlier works.
It is in these other media where the exasperation with copyright law is most deeply felt. Lessig, who promotes his vision of a loose, though not anarchic, content-generation environment through the nonprofit licensing outfit Creative Commons, rejects piracy and “copyright abolitionism.” He mounts a practical case that digital technology, by its very nature, makes it impossible to appropriate without also duplicating.
Lessig urges artists to make their content available for noncommercial uses. And he wants businesses to create “neutral platforms” where such noncommercial, user-generated content is available alongside for-profit content. Lessig argues that competition will help clarify legal and ethical difficulties and point a way to commonsense reform.
In a lively YouTube commentary on the “Evolution of Remix Culture,” the libertarian blogger-journalist Julian Sanchez says remix activities, where users manipulate existing film and audio content, have become an increasingly prevalent form of social communication—a way for technologically-savvy hipsters to “screw around together,” yes, but also an inextricable part of the social fabric for 21st-century youth. Protecting great art and encouraging the production of new works, Sanchez says, is a worthy public good. But that shouldn’t choke off what many argue are harmless novelties.
Critics, however, see an opportunity cost hidden in the culture of remix. Lessig, in his widely-viewed 2007 Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conference talk, said “This is what your children are doing” — which left unasked the question, “What aren’t they doing that they might otherwise be doing?” To wit: something original.
The critic Ludwig Lewisohn marveled thusly at late Twain: “He knew neither Plato nor Spinoza nor Kant; there is no evidence that he had ever read Emerson. He sat down to develop out of his own head, like an adolescent, like a child, a theory to fit the facts as he seemed to see them…” Today’s adolescents, needless to say, have seen fit to avail themselves of the contents of others’ heads.
For Shields, on the other hand, remixing is not only a permissible art-form—it’s the essence of art.
Those with a libertarian bent would add, with some justification, that copyright law has as often as not protected the interests of large corporations at the expense of individual creators, who, in the early history of comics, for example, surrendered the rights to their intellectual property and lost out on untold sums of money or worked under lousy contracts to create content that would later earn billions for companies like Time Warner.
Shields belittles worries that remix culture will stifle and cites as support for his position no less an authority than James Joyce, who said “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.” But wasn’t that a bit of theater from Joyce—along the lines of Bob Dylan’s coy self-dismissal about being “just a song and dance man”? In a note that accompanies his source list, Shields declares: “I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost.”
Hmm. Why would Montaigne, the seminal 16th-century French essayist, have taken that freedom for granted? Might it be the fact that he was writing for a tiny, classically-educated elite, long before the advent of mass literacy?
Shields quotes Emerson (who famously hated quotations!), too, to squash the notion of creating from scratch, of “pure originality”: “By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. It is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent.”
But then, how does acknowledging the sources of one’s quotes detract from this admittedly difficult work? Can’t it be a kind of showing off? In the short films highlighted by Sanchez, in which urban twentysomethings perform homages to a famous scene from The Breakfast Club, the act of quotation would have been meaningless if its source were somehow obscured. Strictly as a legal matter, these short films, in themselves, posed no challenge to copyright standards. It’s their use of latter-day soundtrack music that sets lawyers’ keyboards a-clackin’.
But just as it’s not necessarily intellectual property’s lone guardian of the market value, copyright law is not the villain it’s often made out to be. It does not in fact prohibit appropriation. Rather, it prohibits simple duplication. If one’s appropriation of another’s work is “transformative”—if it makes something new out of something old—and it’s not deemed to have diminished the market value of its source, then it’s perfectly permissible under current law.
The Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil, a Creative Commons licensee, has argued that, far from diminishing market value, remix culture and the global reach of the Web stand to stoke interest in and demand for the underlying sources of whatever is being remixed.
Perhaps, though, the supporters and detractors of remix culture both overstate the role of human ingenuity in all of this. Maybe art doesn’t advance by the lofty standard set by Walter Benjamin—“All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one”—as much as it simply retreats or escapes. I was struck by an interlude in Lethem’s semi-autobiographical opus The Fortress of Solitude in which the protagonist, a rock critic, briefly recounts the history of soul music: “What’s remarkable isn’t that ’50s song structures were inadequate to those unfettered soul voices just then locating their force. What’s remarkable is how ’60s soul produced at black-run companies like Motown, Vee-Jay, and Stax created an entire language based on the confinement of such voices in inadequate or mock-inadequate vessels.”
The great soul singers, in other words, required a “trap”—an old genre yet to dissolve—in order to shine anew.
Like the boredom from which Joyce and Picasso escaped, is copyright law not a kind of constructive trap, a set of river banks that channels creative energies toward the new, the vibrant, the experimental? Has it not, through no one’s conscious effort, compelled the young Ross Douthat—God bless his inner geek—to write brilliantly on the op-ed pages of the New York Times rather than try to write a “competing version of Anakin Skywalker’s life story”?
If this is true, then digital technology may just prove to be a debilitating, rather than constructive, trap. It may have furnished the next generation of artists a means of wallowing amid old genres, in perpetual, self-satisfying circularity.
Scott Galupo is a writer and musician living in Virginia.
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