jc04 posted May 22, 2004
I have to say that your reading of my copyist's anecdote brings out many of the implications that I hoped it would. There are further cultural, economic and political aspects to the peculiarly recalcitrant remediation of print which make it even more clear that we are questioning - significantly - institutions rather than media and their materialities when we discuss certain specific implicated practices. I do still see the anecdote as also commenting on loops and temporal signification, but before looping back to that subject, here are some more brief remarks on the question of why we may never have a Poetics Napster.
Start by asking, why we do we have Napsters for content that is much higher bandwidth and much more difficult to edit and copy than is text? Why are we daily given (literally) better and easier-to-use tools for certain limited types of editing and reproduction of such higher bandwidth time-based media?
It has always been astonishing to me how little economic or political commentary there has been on the macro-structure of 'personal computing' as an industry which draws its own consumers into the processes and labour of production. With the advent of television, consumers purchased high-cost receivers giving access to an infrastructure (of real capital equipment and media production) that is, however, still beyond the means of most consumers to invest in significantly (except, for example, as matter of minority stock holding). However, with personal computing we have all implicitly been asked / convinced / duped into buying what amounts to a significant part of the infrastructure of an industry, broadly conceived. As PC-owning consumers, we spend a relatively large portion of our incomes to purchase (and once our machines have depreciated, repurchase) what amounts to a small but vital part of the capital (the productive) equipment of Networked and Programmable Media Inc. Moreover, it seems that we have traded our usual shareholders' and workers' rights for some once-perceived (and still strongly promoted - think 'Wired') virtual iLife notion of (personal) 'freedom' and (personal) 'power' to do what? Supposedly, to create and generate content. This is what personal computing pretended and what the associated emerging industries now strive to profitably obscure if not prevent.
To be honest, I think this extraordinary situation has arisen without a conscious conspiracy, with most of the relevant analysts and captains of industry more or less unwitting. However, for certain corporations and their few key stakeholders it has clearly been a revolution, the revolution of hyper-Capitalism. Imagine an industry where worker/consumers buy the capital equipment, then buy more equipment (software) from the corporation (from its hyper-shareholders) that enables the distributed virtual factory's machines to function (sort of) in a mildly productive fashion, and then these same workers pay the corporation to maintain their own equipment, and then, moreover, the workers (attempt to) do the maintenance themselves using the usually faulty maintenance equipment (buggy software) that the corporation supplies, often on a subscription basis. I'm not talking about the relatively traditional industry that manufactures the units of hardware, I'm talking about the industry, as I say, broadly conceived, and more properly and specifically centred on the owners of operating system software.
Somehow, in these circumstances, we must get over ever feeling it is wrong to transmit, modulate, copy, repurpose, or do whatever we like to any content of any kind the 'copyright' of which is supposedly 'owned' by an entity other than an actual person whom you might ask or pay to use it. If this 'copyright' is owned by a hyper-Capitalist then you, the consumer/producer/worker have already paid way over the odds for it. Notice: now that the hyper-Capitalists have begun to realise what is happening, major effort is shifted into shoring up the absurd legal institutions and systems surrounding copyright so that these antique real-property-based institutions might yet allow hyper-Capitalism to develop into hyper-hyper-Capitalism, where not only is there no factory and no capital equipment and no salaried workers (or very few) but there is very little that is produced (even by the millions of personal terminals) and all of what is produced is already owned by the hhCs who license its endless, shallowly spiraling circulation, while collecting their suddenly aptly-named royalties, tera-click by tera-click.
There is a degree of hyperbole and polemic in these remarks although if the industry and trade around personal-system-plus-operating-software is seen as the commercial/economic formation in question, then a developed version of this analysis deserves very serious consideration and elaboration. In particular, the issues it raises highlight the discontinuity, indeed, the incommensurability between emerging practices and existing institutions. Parallel and related discontinuities in literal art practice are my main theme. Copyright is now maintained as a 'saving of the phenomena' and one, moreover, that serves a smaller and smaller number of legal entities that control a larger and larger share of intellectual resources and power.
Returning to media in a narrower sense, other industries are catching on. Specifically, the music industry has begun to realize that it is likely to benefit from a situation in which consumers manufacture their own copies. Witness the Apple Music Store, et seq. Once the copyright security problems are solved - on behalf of big owners - in a satisfactorily proprietary and enclosed manner, consumers are granted the freedom to pay, in part, to do the dirty work for hyper-Capitalized media megacorps. Authority to copy is invested in the legal, institutional and security strictures, which regulate and guide channels of revenue ever upwards through the hierarchy, as expenses drift down in a constant, light and apparently bearable drizzle, onto the momentarily happy and ever unwitting worker/consumers. Soon nearly all of us will be soaked, drenched, drowned. Was Napster ever the enemy of the music industry? Napster is its messiah; it will bring on the apotheosis of media hyper-biz.
First music, then digital video and film. Inevitably, because it is easier to control a smaller number of content-creating stars, the effect on art practice will be to narrow the range of authorized and publicized works. All such work, by definition, must be (as)signed to the copyright regulatory system, if not through literal contract then because the system becomes the only physical as well as legal way to distribute content. Even if no corporation pays you as an artist worthy of being publicly copied, you must nonetheless use the corporations' systems to make and distribute your work. In fact, this is already the case for any maker of digital art. We must choose PC or Mac, QuickTime or Flash; but we can choose only those proprietory systems that will make what can be made and distributed - and our work must display and run on a PC, even if it is not made on one, paying its royalties perforce and by the by.
Meanwhile literary art remains compliant to conservative structures of authority. It still cannot allow the consumer to be a producer, even in a successfully mediated sense of trusted, paying, enslaved copyist. The matter of language is both too precious and too insecure. Copying text, as digitized literal code, is all too cheap and easy. While the material paratexts of print culture - those that both mark and guarantee literary authority - are still too expensive, too difficult to get right or to successfully copy at all. This is one meaning of my original anecdote. The institutions of cultural authority choose, both consciously and unconsciously, to conserve the traditional media configurations of literature. The literary copyist's practical problems could be solved - witness what is happening with music and film - but in practice, they are not solved. Why? In part, simply because the (new) media economy is busy elsewhere. Literature is seen as unmediated knowledge and culture as much as it seen as (potential) revenue. More importantly, our understanding of what literature is does not change in relation to the media that bears it. Its stasis also allows a perspective on the fast-changing situation where the money is made, because literature - as performative language - helps to formulate the very legal institutions saving the proprietory phenomena in the service of hyper-Capital.
For avant-garde practitioners like myself, those inclined to a formalism that is informed by the potentials of new media, if there is a social or political role for literal art in these circumstances, it hinges on producing and practicing work that requires a reconfigured understanding of literature, including the understanding of literature *as* literal art, as, that is, art composed from the real, imaginary and symbolic material of language itself. As such it shows itself to be as amenable (if not more or even natively amenable) to networked and programmable media as is work made from non-literary materials - despite traditional resistance. And it reveals its intrinsic time-based character in a manner that cannot be deferred. Paradoxically, this shifts it into strangely attractive alliances with the content-matter of other work that is familiar to us as time-based - music, video, film. The promise, for me, is that once cultural institutions are required to assimilate such literal art as such, as time-based (amongst other properties), a critique of intellectual property will emerge that will be an acid to the already corroded structures currently propping up an antique, privileged and stifling conception of intellectual and artistic property throughout contemporary culture.