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Your Usemonopoly along the Watchtower

The essay of the day comes to us via a time machine and Jonathan Lethem, who published an essay on plagiarism, intellectual property, cultural production and creativity and the like in Harper's back at the end of January, and while it was covered by Slashdot and other sources in February, only now did I get around to it.

The essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence” (Posted on Wednesday, January 31, 2007. Originally from February 2007) is a brilliant read, though it is long enough that toward the end I was eagerly awaiting its end. But the essay style is in full force through much of it, employing great transitions and turns of phrase, strong rhetoric connected to but not tied down by examples, indicating structure but not formulaic ... that sort of thing.

Lethem, who even more recently put up a page on which he states “On May 15th I'll give away a free option on the film rights to my novel You Don't Love Me Yet to a selected filmmaker,” is also undertaking a revival of Omega the Unknown for Marvel (so says the infallible Wikipedia, at least), and given both the Dylan quotes in the Harper's essay and his recent interview with Dylan (Rolling Stone, September 2006), he seems appropriate to mention this week, as Battlestar Galactica has its season finale, in which, as a continuation from last week's episode, Dylan's “All Along the Watchtower” plays a role.

Back to the Lethem essay. Little in the essay is new to those of us who follow matters of copyright—be it the plagiarism of Kaavya Viswanathan, open source vs. closed source software, the jack-booted-thug tactics of the “We're waiting for RICO to slap us down” RIAA, etc.—but the text works well to synthesize ideas as well as present ideas from so many fields. It is, furthermore, much less a manifesto than The Cathedral and the Bazaar, less specifically about plagiarism than Malcolm Gladwell's 200 “Something Borrowed,” and broader, more contemporary, and more accessible than the excellent writings of, say, Lawrence Lessig, whose “Creative Commons” and similar texts I recommend. In light of the recent graduate student conference on translation, I must point out and recommend his “Fiedelity in Translation” (Texas Law Review, Vol. 71 No. 6, May 1993), which, while dealing with law, seems right at home in the world of literary hermeneutics.

And back to Lethem after that digression.

While Lethem admits (by way of his Key at the bottom of the page) that many of the expressions in his essay are not his, let's at least treat the essay, for practical reasons, as the source of “usemonopoly,” a phrase I hadn't heard before, even though many of his other section headings were familiar to me. His brief section on modernism—on the surrealists and on Heidegger, on Breton and on Benjamin—foregrounds Entfremdung and Verfremdung, especially the latter and the matter of making things strange, of dislocation and the (Russian) formalist yearning to shake things up and make us see the ordinary and every day in a new light, not as a use-object, a tool, but for itself (all of this a corollary of/to Kantian idealism, no?). And it is, to an extent, exactly this that Lethem attempts to do regarding our thinking about “intellectual property” and “copyright” and the “market of ideas,” and it's what, rhetorically makes him—potentially—more useful than Eric Raymond or Lawrence Lessig: they argue convincingly, but they speak to those who already share a similar if not the same conceptual framework, and Lethem asks us in this essay to question the appropriateness of, for example, the market metaphor when it comes to ideas and art.

—March 25 2007