In his recent book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, British-born writer Simon Reynolds laments what he believes is the lack of creative originality in contemporary popular music. He compares what he perceives as the debilitated state of today’s sounds to the toxic instruments of financial piracy that nearly collapsed the global economy: “music,” he writes, “has been depleted by derivativeness and indebtedness.”
And yet one might note the irony that Reynolds himself initially emerged as a champion of English punk, a musical form that leapfrogged back over the stylistic excesses of glam, disco, and arena rock to mine the lode of romantic primitivism that fueled skiffle and the thrashier proponents of beat, in particular groups like Them, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds. What’s more, the subsequent style Reynolds lionized, rave, is even more obviously built upon a preexisting foundation, pilfering tracks from a variety of sources, which are sampled, looped, and mashed-up into collages of sound.
That this is pretty much the way that popular music, and indeed much of art, both high and low, has long been made is obvious to Kembrew McLeod and Rudolf Kuenzli, who have put together the collection of essays, Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law (Duke University, 2011). As befits its subject, the book brings together a broad range of contributors, from highfalutin academics to cutting-edge (no pun intended) street-level remixers, who reflect on a plethora of creative practices in all manner of media and genres.
An idea underlying the book is that the process of exchanging, altering, and assimilating information is and always has been central to humankind’s conscious being in the world. Natural scientist Richard Dawkins terms the basic unit of information exchange the meme, which is to culture what the gene is to biology.
The means by which memes develop, proliferate, and mutate is what’s known in the social sciences as diffusion. It’s a phenomenon that is as necessary to evolution and interaction from a cultural perspective as genes are from a physiological one. As poet Joshua Clover states in his contribution to the book titled “Ambiguity and Theft”: “culture is always already collage” (original emphasis). It’s only with the rise of the new robust intellectual property regime that this activity has come to be viewed as disreputable from certain quarters (i.e., power, especially of the Euroamerican white hetero male “ownership” class, AKA the one percent).
The capstone of the book is Jonathan Lethem’s famous essay from the November 2007 issue of Harper’s Magazine “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” a meditation on originality and it discontents composed entirely from cribbed sources. Even more radical takes are those of Jeff Chang, David Banash, and Eve Hemmungs Wirten, each of whom in their respective essays essentially argue for copyright violation as a necessary moral and political act in the face of current, and at this point largely successful, attempts by transnational capital to colonize the noosphere for private profit at the expense of everyone else. (A similar argument is made by Ken Wark in The Beach Beneath the Streets:The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International in discussing the continued relevance of unrepentant nineteenth-century plagiarist Comte de Lautreamont for contemporary vanguard cultural politics.)
Cutting Across Media isn’t meant to be a definitive volume on the subject. There’s no contribution, for example, from Lawrence Lessig, Rosemary Coombe, or James Boyle, legal scholars who have become well known as benchmark thinkers in recent years for staking claims to the creative commons and arguing for the rights of cultural legacies broadly applied. (Although critical information studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan puts in an appearance in an interview conducted by Stay Free! publisher Carrie McLaren.) But it offers a good compendium of current ways of thinking about such issues as intellectual property ownership, creativity and its influences, and strategic practices, both contemporary and historical, for negotiating the contested terrain of creative production. And where many studies are predominantly theoretical or focused on a single medium, Cutting Across Media cuts across mediums to consider pop and classical music as well as visual arts and literature, using specific examples, including the culture-jamming pioneers Billboard Liberation Front and the redoubtable Negativland.
The objection to all of this, of course, is the claim that to allow unfettered access to the creative productions of others is to prevent them from realizing their right to the fruits of their labor. The functionalist reply is that in fact very few creators actually own the right to profit from their work, which instead is usually held by the distributors. A more visionary response sees creative production not as just a pure commodity but also as in some measure a gift that adds to common good known as culture, which has taken on a world-historical scope under the binary digit and its global distribution network. Cutting Across Media proposes that in place of a burdensome intellectual property regime, with its copyright limitations and infringement lawsuits, there shall be an association, in which the free expression of each is the condition for the free expression of all.
Note: This post originally appeared in PopMatters.