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.