12 July 2006

Who owns this blog anyway?

Catching up with this blog is some task, let me tell you, which is why I propose, in light of the recent “digerati and literati” thread, that we find a publisher, and bind all of this web-babble into a book for easier reading. Then, we get corporate support with enough cash to splash a two-page in the Sunday Times, and watch our IRAs get phat, fat, phat….ahem. Sorry about that….but actually, who owns these words anyway?

I noticed something while printing out the above-mentioned thread to read on a bus back to Chicago from St. Louis--something more than the odd homology between my reading, in hard copy, about an (in-part) web-critique located on a blog.

I’m struck by Joe Amato’s comment: “the sense that the (digital) work itself might “automatically” incorporate criticism within it” (in relation to Bolter and Landow), and Lance Olsen’s response that perhaps this integration of criticism into the narrative flow might in some ways serve as a jumping off point for the innovative. Strangely, this all brings me back to where I almost always go: William S. Burroughs.

For the last six months or so, I’ve been involved in a close examination of Burroughs’s cut-up work, particularly in terms of a collaborative manifesto (with Brion Gysin) called The Third Mind (1978, English edition). The text is about as polyvocal as they come—merging tracts about how to do cut-ups, with significant pieces that demonstrate the theory of the practice within the practice itself. This is the pattern of Burroughs “Nova/Cut-Up” trilogy novels, The Soft Machine (1961, 1966, 1968), The Ticket that Exploded (1962, 1967), and Nova Express (1964), with exposition on process followed by rearrangement and interpolation of this exposition.

For those unfamiliar with cut-ups, or Burroughs (although I’m sure most Now What’ers are familiar), the cut-up ethos is multiform. A few important vectors: 1) to do something, now, in what Burroughs called the “pre-sent” time, mirroring populist poetic slogans “Cut-ups are for everyone.” 2) to rearrange words through the random factor (scissors, folding, tearing), redefines “quality”: “Rimbaud announces himself with some excruciatingly bad poetry, Cut Rimbaud’s words and you are assured of good poetry at least if not personal appearance.” 3) to cut-up is, most importantly, to explicitly plagiarize and in many cases infringe on copyright.

This last part is what I am particularly interested in just now (and what I will discuss at the upcoming conference, ¿Quién es?: William S. Burroughs revisited), in that the plagiarism of the cut-ups offers collaboration as explicit (when Burroughs and Gysin and others work on a cut-up piece together), or implicit (when a “single” writer uses other texts in her work). While I do not mean to trivialize the difference between the two modes, I do see an important correlation between the commonality of cut-ups as in some way “collaborative,” in their most effective form also serving as an auto-critique, and the manner by which traditional print media, in two dimensions, generally hides the collaborative stain.

When Picasso sticks a postage stamp on a canvas, we can see multimedia at work (and, if “he” did not “create” the stamp, we might call this the second type of collaboration). Yet, when writing is produced collaboratively, often through a mode of plagiarism, the page does not necessarily reveal its hidden multidimensionality.

And so I am obsessively tracing textual markers of collaboration in Burroughs’ work, looking at bibliographic codes (fonts, copyright notices, repetitions, etc.) that reveal the material hand of plagiaristic collaboration (following some excellent textual work by Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris, most recently in an essay called “Not Burroughs' Final Fix: Materializing The Yage Letters” at Postmodern Culture—but what I am getting at for this space is the supposition that our much-discussed theories on electronic art/writing might profit from (re)visiting the matrix of collaboration/plagiarism/copyright/authorship/ownership/ originality/genius/ad nauseum.

We know where people like Federman stand on this question in terms of print, and I can imagine his electronic thoughts are the same—and Steve Tomasula, both in VAS and The Book of Portraiture, offers very cool takes on same. From the latter text, aping painter Diego Velázquez, and so echoing the work of countless writers and scholars antagonistic to the legal fictions of a singular copyright regime: “Truly, the imagination, which may seem to bear much individual fruit, is root’d in a compost of forgotten books.”

So, while I am no doubt conflating a number of different problems here, I’d be interested to know if others see the mark of the “many” on the electronic “one,” and how, if so, an electronic praxis of plagiarism might evolve in this topsy-turvy, auto-critiquing, consumer-as-producer space-of-no-space non-space?

Burroughs, William S. "The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin" in Re/Search: William S. Burroughs and Throbbing Gristle. San Francisco: RE/Search, 1982: 35-36.
Tomasula, Steve. The Book of Portraiture. Normal/Tallahassee: FC2, 2006: 71.


Joe Amato said...

Davis, nice post. Quickly, 'cause I'm bushed: do you know Christian Moraru's Rewriting: Postmodern Narrative and Cultural Critique in the Age of Cloning (SUNY, 2001)? It speaks rather directly to some of the issues you raise -- w/o of course exhausting them.

Here's a summary of the book, from the SUNY site:

"Does the postmodern process of rewriting stories by earlier writers point to a crisis of originality in our cloning culture? In Rewriting, the first systematic examination of this tendency in late twentieth-century American fiction, Christian Moraru answers this question with a 'no' by examining a wide range of representative writers including E. L. Doctorow, Robert Coover, Paul Auster, Charles Johnson, Ishmael Reed, Trey Ellis, Kathy Acker, Mark Leyner, and Bharati Mukherjee, among others. Moraru shows that in reworking the emblematic nineteenth-century short stories and novels of Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Alger, Stowe, Thoreau, Twain, and others, postmodern American writers take on--and critically revise--a whole set of values and notions that shape our cultural mythology. Accordingly, Moraru redefines postmodernism in general, and postmodern rewriting in particular, as a culturally innovative and politically enabling phenomenon."

More soon, I hope! --



Mark Wallace said...

The heated debate of the moment regarding an "electronic praxis of plagiarism" has been over the flarf movement in poetry--and some people are very worked up over it. Flarf poems essentially take the decontextualized language of phrases found on Google search engines and recontextualize them as a cacophony of voices within the poem, sort of like a whole bunch of characters trying to talk over each other simultaneously, which ain't a bad description of how the net actually works. Thing is, some of the material coughed up by Google (in fact a lot of it) is extreme in every conceivable way, including murderous and racist and much much else. I was reminded how much Burroughs uses cut-ups for similar effect. And yet the heated debate revolves around whether the kind of decontextualized (and then recontextualized in the poem) language of hate that turns up in flarf poems is a useful and satirical critique of, say, racism or war, or an insufficient attempt that ends up celebrating language that most of us would find heinous. So the mark of the many on the one seems, in this case and many others, to lead to work that can still cause controversy some 80 years after the first cut-ups. Kinda fascinating, I say.

Davis Schneiderman said...

Quick responses:

Joe: The Maruru book sounds fascinating, and of interest from the blurb is that these nineteenth-century texts (re-scripted by twentieth-century authors) are in the public domain, and thus, never fall into copyright infringement. To some extent, this makes the pastiche/plagiarism safe, or at least, a self-conscious literary act that is different from Burroughs's most antagonistic cut-ups--using contemporary (generally newspaper and magazine) materials to wage his offensive against Control.

While, of course, newspapers have not the literary reputation to enjoy the same outraged reaction when stolen, the cut-ups that use newspaper material under copyright seem different to me than when Kathy Acker "re-writes" Don Quixote (although certainly, in _Kathy Goes to Haiti_, I believe, and elsewhere, _The Burning Bombing of American_, she uses copyrighted text).

Mark: My limited unserstanding of Flarf does seem to parrallel some elements of the cut-ups--in that the first pieces were _random_ commentary, to some extent, on the web's detritus through collage--yet I imagine that after a certain style set-in, the poems assumed an anti-poetic aesthetic that would in time drive editorial decisions. Stop me if I am wrong here, and I certainly don't know much about it, but there was a similar move from Burroughs and company's first cut-ups in _Minutes to Go_ (1960, w Brion Gysin, Sinclair Beiles, and Gregory Corso), through the later work of _The Third Mind_, which, if we believe reports, contained (in its newer cut-ups) more carefully chosen material.

Interestingly, Corso appended a famous postscript to the _Minutes to Go_ project--rejecting the cut-up strategy, and noting that any poem that could be cut up, deserved to be, and thus, by implication, was an inferior poem to begin with.

One interesting difference between cut-ups and Flarf was that the cut-ups sampled work that was often found in a stadard syntactical arrangement and detourned it through new placement. Flarf seems to often use already de-realized Google fragments, and then, to a certain extent, re-contextualize these within a the poetic system.

In other words, might we say that the cut-ups turned sense into nonsense, and that Flarf does the opposite? I can think of several holes in this line of thought (is the Google junk of flarf already a recognized syntactical system?, etc), but for now...


Mark Wallace said...

Davis, I think your comments and closing questions here are very useful. Some flarf poems are every bit as fragmentary as Burroughs-style cut-ups, while some are shaped to make a more definite (and ironic) sense. Either way, the criticism has been that they don't contextualize cleary enough--and condemn--the brutal language they use. Was Burroughs similarly criticized for some of the extreme phrases that are allowed to stand in his texts? Somehow I don't recall that.

Davis Schneiderman said...


Burroughs was generally not taken to task for the content of the cut-ups, usually regarded as the detritus of the postwar culture he was so often targeting.

Yet, this may have been because his "own" writing (even before the cut-ups became the dominant composition mode) contained such sensational content: heroin and other drug use, sex scenes that largely refused to play into emergent queer constructions (see Jamie Russell's excellent _Queery Burroughs_ for this argument), and the sci-fi alien Nova conspiracy stuff about people merging with centipedes and other disoncerting "schluppings" (as he called the link of bodies in his novel Queer, written in the early 50s, but not released until the mid-1980s.

This is to say that the early cut-ups, in 1960s Minutes to Go, generally drew from other poetic collaborators, canonical writers, or newspaper excerpts--none of which really competed with what many later found offensive in Burroughs's prose. Yet, and this is the key, I think, that latter content was generated through the use of the procedure...

WSB may not have cut-up as _much_ outside work by the time he published the Cut-Up trilogy (mentioned in the initial post), but by obsessively practicing the method, particularly on his own prose, which changed in content due to these early experiments, he generated work that produced quite "unconventional" narrative.

And so, for me, the criticism of his other content is ultimately mapped onto the cut-ups, which, even for Burroughs, faded away to some extent as a practice. By the time the published the "Red Night" trilogy in the 1980s (Cities of the Red Night, The Place of the Dead Roads, and The Western Lands), critics were hailing his "return" to narrative.

While these very cool texts are perhaps *more* linear, the mark of the cut-ups are all over them--and, they read about as traditional as a three-dollar bill, which is to say, not at all.

Probably more than you wanted to read....


Davis Schneiderman said...

Note: Russell book is _Queer Burroughs_ not _Queery..._