Péter Kristóf Makai is a PhD student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Email:
In Praise of Copying
Cambridge, MA and London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2010.
ISBN: 978 0 674 04783 9
When researchers in the humanities seek out the tools of their trade (namely, books) and their repository, the library, these bound volumes acquire a certain magical quality of uniqueness. Today, mechanical reproduction has given way to digital reproduction, and the Internet is increasingly gaining ground as the locus of scholarly discussion, and it also engages in the dissemination of scholarly material: working and white papers, studies and, occasionally, even books from respectable academic publishers. The phenomenon of copying, which is the subject matter of the volume under review, has been increased tenfold on the web – with digital technology, everything can be, and is, copied. So is the case with Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying, which can be easily acquired in digital copy from a number of websites.
Boon’s book addresses this important shift in the production of cultural knowledge in the digital era: the exponentially increasing means of copying whatever cultural product by the expanding circulation of copy-making tools, most notably, industrial technology, audio recording and editing equipment, and the personal computer. Boon sets out to re-evaluate the often inferior status attributed to ‘copies’ as opposed to ‘originals’ in Euroatlantic thought, and seeks not merely to praise copying, but to provide a theoretical foundation for escaping the copy-original dichotomy so firmly embedded in so-called ‘Western’ metaphysics ever since Plato developed the concept of mimesis. In his understanding, “[i]ntellectual-property law functions through Platonic concepts. IP law’s three constituent parts—copyright, trademark, and patent law—are each built around the paradox that you cannot protect an idea itself, but can protect only a fixed, material expression of an idea” (21). Ultimately, In Praise of Copying is a paean to collective creativity and productivity, and a vocal affirmation of practices of copying against what the author deems a socially unjust imposition of IP legislation on a global level in the era of digital capitalism.
Boon’s work focuses on how scholarly discourses of cultural production could utilise the religious tradition of Buddhism, especially its concept of śūnyatā (variously glossed as “emptiness” or “essencelessness”) to rethink the concept of creativity, authorship and collective culture. Although critical cultural theory in its postmodern/poststructuralist roots already advocates some form of anti-essentialism, with the help of Buddhist theology, Boon reconfigures Theory to make it more responsive to the current environment of digital culture and global economic production. In fact, he delves deep into the semiotic discussions of poststructuralist thought (the ideas of Derrida, Badiou and Baudrillard are all featured prominently), and supplies an interpretation consistent with some of the most influential schools of Buddhism. In defence of copying as anything but a mere derivative act of producing a replica of some supposed original, he claims that
[a]ll acts or events of signification are ‘the same,’ then, since they point to their own lack of essence. At the relative level, signification functions through the chain of signifiers to reveal the relative world of appearances. But every signification also paradoxically ‘signifies’ emptiness. Thus, difference and sameness are neither different nor the same; and what is—i.e., what has the ontological status of truly existing—is emptiness itself. (32)
Whatever liberatory, even revelatory value that recognition may hold for the purpose of his thesis, I fear that his discussion of śūnyatā and Buddhist nonduality (26-33) is not easily grasped by readers less versed in the nuances of Buddhist theology, and part of that haze could well be generated by the somewhat opaque translation of śūnyatā as “emptiness.” Granted, this is in the Anglophone tradition of translating Buddhist texts, but even so, it has unfortunate connotations which the more cumbersome “essencelessness” successfully evades at the cost of being quite a mouthful – an inventive alternative to both would have eased comprehension at denser passages in the text. The above quote is also indicative of Boon’s tendency to create sentences which are rather impenetrable because of their intended pithiness, especially when he turns to theory.
Despite its occasional textual shortcomings, In Praise of Copying is a lucidly argued, clear and concise book, with many helpful case studies enlightening concepts that may prove hard to grasp otherwise. Boon’s insistence on revolutionising discourses on copying bespeaks of the author’s sensitivity to the changing cultural ethos of the digital era, which has embraced copying on a wider scale than any other society in the history of humankind. Indeed, he routinely refers to the emergence and sustenance of hip-hop culture as a practice most conducive to an alternative conception of ‘originality’ and cultural ‘borrowing,’ which clashes with the late capitalist ethics of ‘copyright.’ Boon’s analyses of hip-hop practices are particularly enlightening because he continues to stress the personality of the selection involved in copying here, from the making of custom mixtapes to the material cultural memory that lives on as hip-hop. Boon has an ostensibly intimate connexion to hip-hop, and his experiences on teaching the subject translate well to the more general cultural theory he is developing on the pages of the book.
The dexterity with which Boon weaves together all these different strains of knowledge, including hip-hop, Buddhist philosophy and critical cultural theory is impressive. He takes examples from as diverse fields as rap lyrics, avant-garde and Dadaist performances, contemporary popular cinema and art exhibitions to support his theory of copying culture, all of which manage to crystallise key concepts in his theoretical vocabulary, including “mimetic energy,” “reproduction envy” or his relation of the “information object” to Duchamp’s “infrathin.” It could be brought against this type of argument that Boon often and eagerly uses examples of cultural products (films such as Zelig or Being John Malkovich, or novels such as William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition) when talking about practices of cultural production, thus running the risk of taking these narratives at face value, as naive illustrators of phenomena in contemporary culture, rather than ideological constructs of their own right.
Early on in the book, Boon surveys our contemporary attitudes of copying and the atmosphere that surrounds it in the humanities and the sciences, formulating the thesis of his book thus:
Paradoxically, there has probably never been a moment where an explicit recognition of the power of mimesis has seemed so close: in the hard sciences, the recent discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ places the problem of mimesis at the core of attempts to model cognition; in the social sciences, theories of social contagion, with their attendant popularizations in the form of ‘memes’ and ‘tipping points,’ explain the dynamism of human communities in terms of imitation. Are such discoveries merely symptoms of late capitalist ideology, with its own particular appropriations of mimetic power, or do they point to a more fundamental shift that is taking place? (9)
For such a promising beginning, it is regrettable that these explanations of copying culture, or culture-as-copying (including theories of social contagion, the importance of mirror neurons in social functioning, situated cognition) are ignored because of Boon’s ideological/political commitments. Although the closing rhetorical question of the passage hints at these being relevant for the discussion of cultural copying, the actual structure of the book suggest them to be no more than ideological formulations dressed up in the authoritative garb of popular science for the defence of their mimetic practices, rather than working scientific programs of considerable import, binding to the social sciences. What is more striking is what it gets replaced with.
The closest the author gets to pinning down the flurry of cultural changes that occur in all cultures is by appealing to an all-encompassing “mimetic energy.” The difficulties of dealing with such an elusive, almost mystical quality of life is expressed by the author thus:
A comparative study of historical and cultural figurations of energy […] would help to illuminate many of the questions concerning copying that I have set out, since I have frequently had to refer to ‘mimetic energy’ without being able to clarify exactly what I mean. Such a study would have to examine various models of energy in physics, and compare them to Chinese qi, Tibetan rLung, and Indian prana. Without claiming that these words all refer to the same thing, one can say that mimesis plays a crucial role in all such theories, since the search for the fundamental building blocks of reality is almost inevitably a mimetic one. This applies equally to traditional or religious models, to the reductionisms of contemporary neuroscience, and to the laws of physics and the quest for a theory of everything. (154)
It is unfortunate to see that Boon considers the vitalistic concepts of Eastern mysticism to be on par with today’s scientific disciplines with regard to their explanatory power when he describes such “mimetic energy.” Furthermore, the New Age discourse of “holism” is implicitly pitted against the supposed “reductionisms” of contemporary neuroscience, as if Eastern metaphysical notions could somehow shed more light on the nature of copying. This would not, in and of itself, be an untenable position, if only it were supported by argumentation. Apart from an example of how Buddhism makes use of mantras and overflowing repetition in its meditational practices (this time in contrast with consumer culture’s ubiquitous branding and mass production, the latter cast in a uniformly negative light) (192), and an affirmation that this leads to a revelatory recognition of essencelessness and nonduality, the subject is never developed to provide a better explanation of the powers of copying.
It appears as if the author’s adherence to Eastern philosophy got the better of him at times and prompted him to dismiss evidence from other sources, including whole bodies of research that did not fit with śūnyatā and its supposed holism of nonduality. He argues for his choice by claiming that, in a Buddhist epistemology to culture, “the multiplication of nearly identical images is understood not as the degradation of an original, but the invocation of an impermanent, provisional form with the goal of training the mind to recognize its own true nature” (63). Yet, by positing this reachable, recognisable true nature of the mind (as fundamenally nondual and essenceless), it makes the same mistake that Marxist scholars do when appealing to an essentially false consciousness that can be transcended with practices pertaining to that body of knowledge. What is surprising that Boon comments upon precisely this property of ideology when he discusses why copying is feared:
If one is undeceived, mimesis can be recognized as the freeplay of traces and phenomena, and one can participate in this play in an undeluded way, recognizing the unstable, impermanent nature of things, participating in it as necessary. But if one were undeceived in this sense, there would be no need to renounce copying, or to scapegoat or disavow it, or even to fix it as having a particular essence. All attempts at transcending mimesis—including the Christian one—necessarily reinstate it. (136)
Why is Buddhist theology missing from this list? Why does his own attempt to re-evaluate mimesis as cultural production (and copying as betraying a sense of essencelessness) not fall into the same category, making the same mistake? Boon does not reflect upon this. In fact, Boon cannot do away with old ‘Western’ metaphysics by appealing to old ‘Eastern’ metaphysics. In fact, this move stops him from being thoroughly true to his task of anchoring copying (and cultural production in general) in nonduality. Although he wants to develop a coherent and relevant counter-theory of mimesis, the reigning discourse, labelled as the “violence” frame of mimesis by the author (predictably, those practices which are associated with economic mass production) is just a very heavy-handed assessment of one kind of productive copying.
This owes much to the author’s adherence to the orthodoxy of critical cultural studies, which seems to be more engaged in the Marxian task of opposing the sundry historical configurations of the capitalist economy, with the productive values of its bourgeois upholders, rather than creating a level-headed and even-handed assessment of mimetic agency. The author’s approach hinders his own project because the Marxian roots of critical cultural studies already sides with the oppressed and veers towards an idolisation and celebration of ‘folk’ or ‘subcultural culture.’ He writes that “[i]n the nineteenth century, European folk cultures apparently disappeared as autonomous entities. Elements of the political right appropriated and represented them as reified kitsch symbols of the nation-state” (51). On the other hand, the self-same appropriation of the working classes, the racially, sexually or otherwise underprivileged as symbols of cultural resistance against a homogenised capitalist production by the academic left is never commented upon.
This is because the author is actively creating and sustaining a dichotomy whereby the cultural production of the privileged and the underprivileged is analysed through different lenses. Therefore, it overlooks the universal processes of mimetic production, which are at work regardless of which social class produces a cultural object. Granted, issues of social power add an extra layer to cultural production and they alter the meaning of a cultural object in the making. However, Boon privileges the ‘folk’ or ‘popular’ tradition, blind to the fact that the selective traditions of all creative communities (including recording executives on Abbey Road, software programmers in Delhi or MCs from Eastern Europe) are all affected by the same competition for cultural attention, a process of elimination and retention that works upon all cultural objects, and thus the sustenance of cultural communities must be analysed on the same terms. Every time Boon refers to “the collective” or “the multitude” as producers of “folk culture,” or when he calls for an appropriation of culture in a “proper, progressive or even radical” (217) manner, he forfeits a little of his consistency and relevance in favour of his political commitment to the left.
Due to his adherence to critical cultural theory, which maintains a position of social constructionism on matters of culture, he remains sceptical of the successes of scientific materialism to explain the organisation of the living world, including the realm of human culture. This leads him to cast neuroscience and other scientific aids to understanding culture as “reductive,” by suggesting that something was lost on the way. In his discussion of montage, for example, he dedicates a subchapter to the process of combination and selection (147-149), and yet, he brings avant-garde and beat poetics, the I Ching and bebop jazz as the foremost exploiters of these creative principles. In like manner, one subchapter in the chapter “Copying as Transformation” bears the title “Universal Imitation?” (note the question mark), which mentions evolution only in the context of sexual reproduction and casts evolutionary theory as wary of calling reproduction copying, and collapsing it with eugenics at one point, all this based on one book (François Jacob’s The Logic of Life). Towards the end of the book, Boon raises the stakes and claims Darwinian natural selection to be “the reigning dogma today” (181). Styled as a monolithical ideology of science-as-power, Boon relieves himself of seriously considering the implications of natural and cultural selection as a basis of human culture.
Boon’s socially oriented approach to imitation, mimesis or copying in culture has its place in discourses on copying. His book is a timely and relevant one, coming at a time when means of copying are exponentially developing. There is plenty of food for thought, and his engagement with controversial ideas allows him to articulate his theory at appropriate length and in depth. He might convince the reader that Buddhist practices can indeed take the mind on a voyage to experience something fundamental about mimesis in our lives. What I dispute are his conclusions, especially his uncritical celebration of folk culture’s privileged inventiveness and his consequent hostility to consider the results of cutting-edge research and scientific materialism in general. Despite its shortcomings, Boon’s book gives plenty of food for thought and an inspiring view of the world, which is a rare gift indeed, even in scholarly literature.