Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Creative Control - Part 4

Transcriptions, Translations, Recontextualisations, Redactions, Reinventions

We’ve all heard the argument, may have used it ourselves. There’s only seven basic plots. There’s nothing new under the sun. And so on. In the spirit of this sentiment, I’m going to steal a quote from Jim Jarmusch by way of Chris Roberson, one which puts a distinct spin on the whole notion of originality:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.’”

Now I’m the first to celebrate the whole idea of reuse. The remixing of existing texts like Aeschylus’s PROMETHEUS BOUND or Euripedes’s THE BACCHAE is a core technique in VELLUM and INK, so I’d be a hypocrite to scorn reuse in and of itself. Yes, I’ve laid out where I think there are issues of “conspiracy to defraud” — a sort of “forgery” or “counterfeiting”, a copying of tickets which simply opens up entry to a service provided by another — and yes, I think there’s a small proportion of cases where reuse of this or that aspect of an articulation constitutes the ethically dubious act we call plagiarism. But in condemning Horseshit Hirst’s hypocrisy and condoning Cartrain’s use of an image of Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, I’ve also made it clear, I hope, how far I think the concept of “fair use” or “fair dealing” should extend beyond the limits currently set. Which is to say, I don’t think what Cartrain did was really plagiarism. Being an unashamed member of the Remix Generation, however, and an advocate for the authenticity of collage, doesn’t mean I’m quite willing to buy into the argument that collage is all there is, that “nothing is [truly] original”.

Let’s tease Jarmusch’s statement apart a little. Given that I don’t believe in “intellectual property”, I can’t really describe the act of reuse as “theft”. The direct and personal experiences of “dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows,” and suchlike are not capable of being owned, so they’re not capable of being stolen. The direct and personal experiences undergone in the act of transfer entailed when one watches a film, reads a book or poem, views a painting or photograph — these don’t “belong” to the artist anymore than the architect of a bridge owns its image in your vision as you stand there gazing at it. So for me it’s simply wrong to think of your imagination being fuelled by such experiences as “thievery”.

Now, much of learning how to make a work of art, the simple craft of putting together this… articulation of an information-pattern, comes from devouring the work of others, gleaning the potentialities of the medium from their being made manifest in this film or that novel, coming to recognise the tricks and techniques that underlie these works, replicating them. Much of developing one’s own voice as a… style of structuring comes from copying the styles of others, not just the superficial execution — the particular types of ways, for example, in which one writer puts particular types of words together into particular types of clauses, phrases, sentences and paragraphs (the copying of which allows us to render a scene in “Joycean” stream-of-consciousness or “Chandleresque” hardboiled prose) — but the deeper style of structurings at other levels — the use of particular types of character, for example, plot or setting, the use of tropes of any form, or even simply of certain themes and ideas which might make a work read as anything from “sort of Phildickian in its mindfuckery” to “an outright Tolkien clone”. Is this all there is though? Are those “Joycean” and “Chandleresque” styles themselves simply remixes of styles that came before? Were Dick and Tolkien, essentially speaking, not adding anything new? Despite what he says himself, I’d describe Jarmusch’s work as deeply original precisely because however much it may have “taken things from” all manner of sources, where he has “taken them to” is quite unique.

Imagine there’s this book that contains everything ever written and everything never written, the entirety of all possible permutations of every language, past, present and future. The book is opened with the invention of writing. The turning of each page is the creation of a text. In the first few pages we see only the accountacy of Sumerian scribes, stocktaking and contracts. Turn another page and suddenly we have Gilgamesh. Flick forward and we have Inanna’s Descent, Dumuzi’s Dream, and on, and on. The symbols these texts are written in may have been used in earlier records of day-to-day trade and suchlike, but these fictions, where they first appear, are something new, something novel. We’re not going to say that they’re unoriginal simply because they “reuse” the words of the language itself, are we? We’re not going to say that a writer isn’t original because all the words they use are in the dictionary, right? That would surely be stretching the meaning of the term “original”.

The writing is just a metaphor, mind; imagine that turning of a page represents the telling of a tale, the act of spoken recitation, beginning not in Sumer but long before. Still, with the turning of each page articulations are coming into existence that have never before existed. They are originating.


Imagine as writing spreads in the world, each page you’re turning in this Book of All Hours becomes more and more cramped, the scribbling smaller, poems, plays, stories, essays, thousands of creative acts taking place simultaneously around the world, at the same instant, with the turning of a page of history. Many of these acts replicate acts already written down on earlier pages — a version of Gilgamesh copied out by a later scribe, say. They may replicate those earlier acts exactly, as word-for-word transcriptions. Or they may fail to do so, introducing errors with an incorrect transcription. Or they may translate an earlier work into a different language or simply adapt it to the different idiom of a culture that has changed over time. These are rearticulations that differ ony superficially, but wherever even the subtlest of changes are introduced — in the mistakes that put one symbol where another should be, in the decisions that map obsolete or foreign words and phrases to expressions that only just about do the job (and one could argue that no two words in different languages or in different times and places are ever going to mean exactly the same thing) — wherever the text on one page is not identical to the text on a page that came before, there may well be profound effects. Even the subtlest of differences could radically alter the process of transfer that takes place when one reads a text, entirely change one’s reading. Maybe such subtle changes don’t have such substantial ramifications though. Maybe they aren’t enough for us to distinguish this transcription or translation as “original”. Maybe what we’re trying to point at when we describe something as “not original” is precisely a degree of replication which renders one work an adaptation of another, a reiteration which might be different but only at a superficial level.

Originality is not absolute. It is not an either/or proposition. A work is made more or less original by the degree of its difference from other works. And how we define “substantiality” is flexible enough that we can happily describe a new translation of Gilgamesh into English as “original” even though it is striving, one would hope, to be as faithful an adaptation of its source as possible. That we can and do use “originality” in this way, that many words can and do have different meanings in different contexts, is one reason we don’t stretch the meaning of the term “original” to rule out works which “reuse” the words in the dictionary. Every new articulation puts the words it uses into a new context, creates a whole that is more than the sum of its parts by recontextualising every element within it. The combination that has never before been articulated is an original articulation in and of itself; it has just originated. (Horseshit Hirst’s hypocrisy is all the more obnoxious given that his diamond-encrusted skull, like so much conceptual art, justifies itself as art almost entirely on that basis, situating the creative act solely in the recombination of pre-existing components — the skull and the diamonds — in the meaning that emerges from the juxtaposition, the recontextualisation, of both. The recontextualisation carried out via this crude collaging of physical objects is sufficient, he is asserting, for it constitute an “original creative work”. In challenging Cartrain’s collage, which treats a photograph of his work as an object in the world and applies to it the exact same technique of juxtaposition, of recontextualisation, he is denying the validity of the technique, refusing to recognise the new meaning that emerges from this recombination. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on, I’d say. Anyway…)

Keep turning the pages and we find another technique of scribes emerging. A scribe of latter-day Babylonia may combine numerous variant versions of different tales of Gilgamesh, say, from throughout Mesopotamian history, may wire them together into a distinctly individual tale told with a distinctly individual voice and vision — as the scribe Sin-Leqi-Unninni did, to the extent that John Gardner’s translation refuses to use other versions to fill in gaps resulting from fragmented records, preferring to offer a “chaste” text which reflects the cohesiveness of that voice and vision. Sin-Leqi-Unninni’s Gilgamesh may be a redaction that ultimately relies quite heavily on its sources, but even as such it has a uniqueness. Is this a good point to start talking about a work as “original”? It is surely as original an act as that which takes, from nature and existing culture, the ideas of clay-bricks, buildings, temples, mountains, pyramid forms, steps, and so on, and recombines them into the first ziggurat. Which may not be that original, it must be said, given the ubiquity of those elements in that time and place. Were we to unearth earlier temples of a construction similar enough that the ziggurat was only the next logical step in an evolution of forms, we might well see this as no great innovation. Had we more cuneiform records of the evolution of the Gilgamesh text(s) we might not consider Sin-Leqi-Unninni’s version worthy of distinction. The point is that where we do maybe that distinction is what we are signifying with the term “originality”.

Flick forward in The Book of All Hours. Flick forward page after page after page from the first Gilgamesh text which introduces us to their Flood legend, and we still haven’t come to the remix of the Sumerian Flood story that’s written down in Genesis. All the works that later scribe took as sources in their construction of Jewish scripture might exist, but their own particular articulation does not, not yet. Lick a finger, curl a page and we’re at the instant of “taking”, the scribe having read those sources, “taken” from them events, characters, ideas, maybe even distinct expressions. The scribe is just about to utilise these things, to “take them to” his or her own retelling, their remix, but we don’t know what that remix will be, not yet. We don’t yet know “where” they will “take” these things. And then we turn the page and find that this scribe has taken them somewhere new. On this just-turned page what we find is not a transcript or a translation. It’s not even a redaction. It could be considered a remix but it’s not even as if it’s sampling phrases directly from those sources. It’s not like the reuse of a bass-line or a turn of phrase. Oh, we can see that the basic story has been reused — “borrowed” or “stolen” we might say in the language of intellectual property — but it’s been rearticulated in a quite different way, to quite different ends. It’s not a redaction; it’s a reinvention. One characteristic — definitive, even — element of the articulation, its basic plot-structure, has been taken from the source and placed into a new context which utterly transforms its meaning.

This is where things get tricky.

Where It Gets Tricky

See, the principle of droit d’auteur recognises that this sort of copying and reuse of another’s service could well be a gross abuse of the spirit in which it has been provided. The Biblical version of the Flood utterly transforms the thematics of the Sumerian story by combining the roles of Enlil, king of gods, who orders the deluge, and Enki, god of wisdom, who warns the hero of its coming. Where the Sumerian tale presents the deluge as the work of an intemperate overlord whose attitude to humanity is far from benevolent, whose might may not be right, and offers an ethical opposition to him in figure of a merciful intercessor, the Biblical tale ultimately sanctions the genocidal destruction of most of humanity by ascribing it to a God whose wisdom, justice and mercy are presented as unquestionable. The potential offensiveness to an author should be obvious if you imagine a reinvention of the Biblical tale which kept God as the cruel tyrant who sent the Flood, but introduced Lucifer as the noble rebel who warned one human in order to save the entire race. Given some of my own reinventions it’s fortunate we accept this in cases where the author is long dead. Reinventions which completely invert the moral subtext of some folktale or legend are hardly unusual in fantasy, and given the dubious moral subtexts of many such traditional tales this is no bad thing, I think. But when the reinventions and recontextualisations are of works whose creators are still alive, well, it might be a different story, so to speak. Even something as simple and singular as a character can be revamped, as happens regularly in comics, the whole mythos reconfigured around them in such a way as to radically repurpose them; and if you want an idea of just how objectionable this could be, imagine Siegel and Schuster’s Superman, one year after his purchase by DC Comics in 1938, being handed over to a writer who equated the Man of Steel with Nietszche’s ubermensch and used the character to articulate their own fascist sympathies.

It’s the right of the creative worker, I think, to ensure that sort of shit doesn’t happen in their lifetime. Where copyright is assigned to an estate and/or executor it’s their right and their responsibility, I think, to ensure that sort of shit doesn’t happen for as long as copyright pertains. Regardless of work-for-hire contracts and corporate “ownership”, in fact, I’d say it’s the right of the creative worker to challenge any such co-option even of a work they sold off wholesale, before or after the fact of creation. Legally, they may be pissing in the wind, and an ethical inversion of thematics is not going to be easy to prove in court, but they’re certainly entitled to kick up a stink. And I’m not so sure it would be unworkable to introduce an “unfair use” clause that rendered corporate “ownership” null and void where it flagrantly perverted the purpose of the creator, where it could be argued reasonably that a re-invention breached an implicit “good faith” assumption that the character would continue to be used for the same purpose. What’s impracticable is simply the idea of getting a law passed such that someone in the position of Helen Aberson and Harold Perl, for example, the writer and illustrator of the children’s book that DUMBO is based on, might take Disney to court for, say, introducing a racist character like Jim Crow or throwing in some right wing anti-union propaganda in the form of evil clowns. As long this is the case I pretty much wholeheartedly support the scorn of corporate copyright embodied in, say, MICKEY MOUSE IN VIETNAM, the 16mm short made by Lee Savage in 1968 or thereabouts, where the character “owned” by Disney but created by Ub Iwerks is shipped to Vietnam and shot dead. Ub Iwerks might justly tell me to shut the fuck up, and I would, but Disney? Disney can shove it. Corporate “ownership” is just a product of the power differential, the privilege of businessmen who can crowbar their talent into “selling” what isn’t sellable because it isn’t “property”. All there ever is is a license to use the service provided by the worker or workers who toiled to produce it. It may be a license to use that service freely, in whole or in part, but (with a caveat that I might be willing to admit of exceptions argued convincingly enough) that license should always be revokable by the creator, and until it is I see little reason to respect an inequitous privilege.

The political rejection of such privilege is part of why I support the remixing of Mickey Mouse in Savage’s short, but it’s only part of it. The creative potential of recontextualisation is why I go a little further in a different direction and support the remixing of Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull in Cartrain’s collage as “fair use”; if it samples and repurposes what it samples, it does so, I think, with the same degree of change (in going from 3D to 2D) that we find in Mickey Mouse parodies like Rat Fink or Mad magazine’s Mickey Rodent. Critique cannot be outlawed and satire is a valid form of critique that requires an element of copying. Cartrain’s work is, I think, entirely justifiable on that basis. Still, this possibility of objectionable reinventions is why if I released “Die! Vampire, Die!” under a Creative Commons licenses with a “no derivatives” option rather than just the “non-commercial” option. See, I was chuffed to bits to find fanart of my characters, Jack and Puck, on deviantArt. I’d most likely be equally chuffed to bits to find fanfic. Hell, even if it’s godawful writing that makes me cringe to see my creations so ineptly handled, it won’t offend me. But if you decide you want to base your story on the Jack Flash from that thread in INK where he’s basically a Nazi, if you’ve somehow managed to miss the entire point of that thread so you end up writing a story which heroises fascism, well, if it’s a choice between giving anyone carte blanche to do that and retaining the right to sue the ass off the one cretin who does, I think my choice is pretty clear. You want to support fascism, don’t abuse whatever service I’ve provided by reusing its components to those ends. That’s not why I took the time to scribble out my own work in one corner of a page of this theoretical Book of All Hours.

Flick all the way forward to that page. There’s a ton of other stuff on it, written by other hands. Within my own work you can see where I’m sampling from earlier pages, the words of Aeschylus or Virgil or Euripedes, the style of Joyce (partly by way of Whittemore), the ideas of Moorcock and others. You can see where I’m remixing. The Book of All Hours is itself an acknowledged remixing of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Borges’s Book of Sand. I don’t “conceal my thievery”. And if that makes you see my work as essentially “just” collage, as “only” a remix, I’m not too fussed, to be honest; what it samples is all torn apart and rebuilt at the lowest level, cause I’m not interested in just regurgitating another’s idea, rephrasing their expressions, but if anything fits this vague idea of Masnick’s that “[a]ll works are inspired by and use bits and pieces of what they've learned or what they've seen, heard and felt,” then VELLUM and INK are pretty good contenders. But on page after page after page of those you’ve flicked through to get to the page of the theoretical Book of All Hours on which my actual Book of All Hours is just a scribble in the corner, I’d argue, you’ll have been passing over other creative works that were not transcriptions or translations, not redactions or reinventions, and not even remixes in the way mine is, not to that extent. You’ll have been passing over creative works that were original.

The idea that you won’t strikes me as a deeply unsound philosophical proposition.

The Missing Shade of Blue

This notion that all creative works an artist could conceivably bring into existence will be responses to and reworkings of the creative works they have experienced because this is essentially how art is produced has always struck me as reminiscent of Hume’s theory, articulated in AN ENQUIRY INTO HUMAN UNDERSTANDING, of the generation of ideas from impressions. For Hume all ideation is a recombination of sensation. Breaking his duality up into a more complex quaternity, it doesn’t seem entirely off the ball to me at first sight. We have sensory receptors that are triggered by stimuli patterned by the world itself, the confusion of light and matter registering physically as reception. We parse those signals into our senses, make sense of them, registering them experientally as perception. We process these perceptions, some of which are entirely kinaesthetic senses of our physical selves, parse them into units of events which are in turn parsed into beings and doings, objects and actions, which are in turn parsed into qualities of those objects and actions. We have an imaginative faculty which allows us to recall into an inner experience what we have experienced, as a memory — of a cat we used to own, say. We can even use some of these memories as symbols, as when we “hear” a word in our inner voice. Hume’s argument might be read as characterising that word as our memory of the series of sounds it’s built from: the voiceless velar plosive of a /k/, followed by the open front unrounded vowel of an /a/, followed by the voiceless dental plosive of a /t/. Somewhere in this process of recombination we end up with a level of abstraction sufficient that we refer to its constituent parts as ideas rather than impressions, the concepts of thought rather than the percepts of sense. Reception leads to perception which leads to conception. If we want to fully map the internal workings of the agent, we should, I think, identify the subsequent stage of inception which closes the circle in processing ideas into actions, those actions affecting the world and thereby affecting subsequent reception. Rip out the perception and conception and you have the stimulus-response protocols of any primitive organism. Accept that there might be an evolutionary benefit in an ability to de-automise those protocols — an ability to model a situation, run scenarios on how that situation might play out with different responses, evaluate those potential outcomes and act accordingly — and I think you have a fairly plausible argument for why we’re not so primitive, why we have these weird things that Hume calls impressions and ideas.

Still, so far so recombinatory. In Hume’s theory even an idea that is entirely imaginary can be understood as ultimately grounded in experience. That fanciful idea of a unicorn is not just magicked into mythology from nowhere. It is a complex idea, constructed from the idea of a horse and the idea of a horn, both of which are born from our impressions of horses and horns. It is a collage, not a truly original creation. (Not to mention that it’s probably inspired by an impression of someone else’s badly-articulated impression of a rhino anyway.) To find a truly original creation we’d have to identify a “simple” idea — one that isn’t a collage of others — which we have never had an impression of. All the quirks of strange fiction, to put it in a pertinent perspective, all the counterfactual errata, the hypothetical novae, the metaphysical chimerae — Nazi presidents and robot stormtroopers and butterfly-winged faeries — these are not pure invention. Rather they’re remixes of the world as we live in it, as we experience it. We simply cannot, Hume argues, invent an entirely spurious idea by an imaginative leap into the void. His argument is not unconvincing, and it’s a sense of this recombinatory aspect to imagination that, I think, leads many to assert that “nothing is original” in art. It’s not an unwarranted supposition, but I think it’s a misreading of what we mean by the term original in respect to art.

See, Hume does something quite strange that has troubled generations of philosophers ever since. Immediately after expounding his theory that you can’t have a simple idea that’s not based on an impression, he offers a counter-example that appears to refute that theory. Working on the assumption that shades of colour are distinct and simple as impressions and ideas, he presents a scenario where a man lives to thirty years with his sight, becoming “perfectly acquainted with colours of all kinds, except one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with.” Place before that man all the different shades except the one he hasn’t seen and, Hume argues, it’s obvious that he’ll see that there’s one missing, “that there is a greater distance in that place between the contiguous colours than in any other.” Further, Hume argues, there are few who’d argue that he couldn’t imagine that shade. It’s an exception that he accepts but disregards as “scarcely worth our observing”, not worth changing the theory for, but in doing so he opens up a can of worms. What if our man has become perfectly acquainted with triangles of all kinds, with any number of variant proportions in the lengths of their sides, except the one which happens to have all sides of equal length? He’s never seen an equilateral triangle. Can he imagine it? What if our man has become perfectly acquainted with regular polygons of any number of sides, except the one which happens to have all eight? He’s never seen an octagon. Can he imagine it? What if our man has become perfectly acquainted with all manner of animals with hooves, except the one which happens to be a stallion? He’s never seen a male horse. Can he imagine it?

Where Hume creates trouble for his own theory (only to blithely disregard it) is in asserting that shades of colour are distinct and simple, but it’s not that the “missing shade of blue” necessarily invalidates his whole theory. It just points us to the fact that these apparently “distinct and simple” ideas are actually integrated in a coherent system, a colourspace.

[Next: The Colour Out of Colourspace]


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