January 11, 2007

Run don't walk

Jonathan Lethem has a piece titled "The Ecstasty of Influence: A Plagiarism" in the February issue of Harper's. It's the single best essay on intellectual property I've read.

It doesn't even start out as a typical Harper's essay about a socio-culutural crisis. There's no big downer opening explaining how we're all doomed but may as well try to understand the problem that's gonna eat us from the inside out.

Lethem instead presents a survey of the way cultural influence works in the creative process citing examples like Nabokov (who apparently stole Lolita) and Muddy Waters. He goes on to talk about how we grow up in a time that is steeped in cultural reference, that we grow up knowing parodies of work well before we understand their antecedents. It's not until the fifth page that he busts out with the Jeffersonian analysis about the intent of intellectual property.

From there he busts out, hitting on the importance of a gift economy in avoiding the commoditization of art. And there's good personal anecdotes both about his experience as an artist and as an audience member. (I particularly like the story about how he couldn't see an Iranian film adaptation of Franny and Zooey because Salinger had the screening shut down ... Lethem remarks "The cold, undead hand of one of my childhood literary heroes had reached out from its New Hampshire redoubt to arrest my present-day curiosity.")

Lethem concludes with a blessing to his readers: "The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with you."

And then he has a notes section in which it's revealed that his whole essay is actually a collage of other people's work.

Basically the whole thing is stolen including the personal anecdotes (altho' the bit about Salinger is his, though the setup is from Village Voice critic Amy Taubin. But the intimate "Give All" conclusion ... that's from Saul Bellow.

Despite having read some of the source material (Lessig, Wallace) I didn't realize the true meaning of the essay's subtitle until I got to the end. And it knocked me out of my seat. I actually stood up and left the restuarant where I was eating (I'd already paid) saying out loud, "That's amazing!"

The thing is that on its own it is a great piece. It's a brilliant essay showing how cultural remixing is an integral part of our lives; as creators, as audience members ... even just as humans trying to understand the world and exist in a community. But as a piece of remix art itself it is a phenomenally powerful illustration of that underlying principle. I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. Lethem's article was excellent and intricately clever. It must have taken a great deal of time and effort, more possibly than his Harper's fee would have warranted. The notes at the end would work better on the net with hyperlinks etc.,
Lastly the piece about the litigious Salinger has echoes of something I have read 'cold undead hand' etc., Lethem doeas say there may well be unattributed borrowings. A greeat blog thanks, Nigel