Friday, December 14, 2007

"The Early Days of Mail Art: An Historical Overview," Ken Friedman

It is difficult to pinpoint the moment when artists’ correspondence became correspondence art. By the end of the late 1950s, the three primary sources of correspondence art were taking shape. In North America, the New York Correspondence School was in its germinal stages in the work of artist Ray Johnson and his loose network of friends and colleagues. In Europe, the group known as the Nouveau Realistes were addressing radical new issues in contemporary art. On both continents, and in Japan, artists who were later to work together under the rubric of Fluxus were testing and beginning to stretch the definitions of art.

Correspondence art is an elusive art form, more variegated by nature than, say, painting. Where a painting always involves paint and a support surface, correspondence art can appear as any one of dozens of media transmitted through the mail. While the vast majority of correspondence art or mail art activities take place in the mail, today’s new forms of electronic communication blur the edges of that forum. In the 1960s, when correspondence art first began to blossom, most artists found the postal service to be the most readily available -- and least expensive -- medium of exchange.

Today’s micro-computers with modern facilities offer anyone computing and communicating power that two decades ago were available only to the largest institutions and corporations, and only a few decades before that weren’t available to anyone at any price. Transistors and miniaturized electronics make it as simple today to record and to send a video-tape as to write a letter. With teletext, interactive cable, mailgrams, electronic mail, electronic computer networking, video, inexpensive audio, and -- looming on the horizon -- myriad new communications techniques, correspondence art is harder to define than ever before.

While these facts establish a sense of perspective, the soul of correspondence art remains communication. Its twin faces are “correspondence art” and “mail art” Here the distinction is between reciprocal or interactive communication -- correspondence -- and unidirectional or one-way communication, mailed out without any requirement for response.

There are special cases of correspondence art that involve the mails as medium of transmission for purposes other than mail art. Good examples of this included exhibitions of art from Eastern Europe in which the cheapest and safest way of sending art to the United States was through the mail, though the art works sent were actually intended as -- and only as -- photographs, drawings, paintings, or artists’ books.

Certain forms of art have become associated with correspondence art and mail art both by virtue of tradition and the ease with which they are mailed. These include postcards, artists’ books, printed ephemera, rubber stamps, artists’ postage stamps, and posters of various kinds.

The first phase of correspondence art primarily involved individual expression in reciprocal relationships, a natural outgrowth of artists’ correspondence. History and tradition honor Ray Johnson as the central figure in this phase of correspondence art. To the degree that he identified, named and himself became identified with the emerging art form, this is true.

Working in the tradition of collage and the objet trouvé he was perhaps the first to identify the transaction of art works and notes with colleagues as an art form itself. Through this stroke of inspiration, correspondence art was born. Johnson gave it focus by promulgating the rubric, “The New York Correspondence School of Art” (The name itself was coined by Ed Plunkett). Thus, by permutation, the world was given the new medium, correspondence art, and its first body of practitioners, The New York Correspondence School (NYCS).

However, correspondence art as such first grew from the work of the European artists identified as the “Nouveaux Realistes,” a name coined by French critic Pierre Restany. The core issue of the “New Realism,” a movement born in the early 1950s, was the conception of an art made of real elements, that is, materials taken from the world directly rather than pictorially. The group includes Arman, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Martial Raysse, Raymond Hains, Daniel Spoerri and Francois Dufrene, and -- in some senses -- Christo. These artists each used a direct slice of life. The actual sectioning went from the highly tenuous or theoretical projects of Manzoni and Klein to the embedded and snared works of Arman and Spoerri, the decollages of Hains and Dufrene and the world-embracing, massively realized projects of Christo.

The issues and ideas that motivated the Nouveaux Realistes also emerged in the Pop Art of the late 1950s and early 1960s in Britain and the United States, though Pop Art tended to be an art which took reality into its scope in an emblematic way rather than by using direct incorporation or manipulation of physical materials.

Collage sensibility and incorporation of reality are attitudes shared with much later correspondence art. It is in the use of the postal system, of artists’ stamps and of the rubber stamp that Nouveaux Realisme made the first gestures toward correspondence art and toward mail art.

Several early key works in these media were created by these artists. Klein’s famous “Blue Stamp” was a postal cause célèbre and a bureaucratic scandal after it was successfully mailed and postmarked in the mid 1950s. Arman introduced the rubber stamp into contemporary art with his cachets and accumulations of the early and middle years of the decade. Kurt Schwitters had done stamp works as early as 1918. The Russian Futurists had created the first modern art with rubber stamps a few years earlier. Marcel Duchamp had experimented with a piece in the form of a post card, and the Italian Futurists showed interest in using the mails. Even so, the latter were perhaps examples of mailed art rather than mail art and even the use of rubber stamps as an art medium vanished until shortly after the end of the Second World War, when Arman resurrected it in his oeuvre. Spoerri not only created ephemeral mailed works and projects, small gazettes and cards, but his involvement with mail art -- unlike that of Klein or Arman -- continued unabated for over a decade and a half spanning the first three phases of correspondence art.

Thus, it can probably be said that the Nouveaux Realistes were the first artists to use correspondence media as art forms in their own right. However, it was Ray Johnson and his circle of friends in the New York Correspondence School who gave the first phase its characteristic sensibility and presence.

If the Nouveaux Realistes created paradigms of correspondence art and mailed art as works, it was the New York Correspondence School that took the notion from paradigm to practice. Ranging at times from seventy-five to as many as three hundred people, the NYCS was summoned into being by Ray Johnson but, at its height, existed around him as many intersecting relationships independent of his direct involvement. Many distinguished artists participated in Johnson’s whirling vortex of mailings and events, some of whom, such as Richard C., Ed Plunkett, or Dick Higgins and the Fluxus artists became themselves major figures shaping the ethos and attitudes of correspondence art.

The NYCS relied on direct interaction between correspondents. As a result, the works that one might receive in the early days were highly personal, often highly crafted. Handmade collages, carefully printed photographs, even framed paintings were fairly common. Odd and lavish objects were not uncommon. Some artists took pride and a perverse pleasure in sending one another the most outlandish objects or projects they could conceive, including objects that were difficult or perhaps impossible to mail. My own favorite project was mailing a series of chairs. I mailed the smaller chairs as single objects. I mailed the larger chairs by taking them apart so that the disassembled pieces fit postal size limits. The challenge was to mail them unwrapped and visible, persuading postal clerks to accept the items according to postal regulations. It was a time when postal regulations were different and substantially more relaxed than today.

In the 1960s, Ray Johnson set the tone for NYCS. The Paper Snake, a book on his work, published by Something Else Press, is a good example of the abundance and flavor of the time. Direct and personal interaction were the salient qualities and greatest pleasures of the NYCS and the era of the 1960s. The first phase of correspondence art was also characterized by a trenchant sense of privacy. These were private letters and activities, exchanges among friends. An attitude that only members need apply prevailed. University of Maine Art Historian Owen Smith suggests that the private, inward-looking attitude that Johnson adopted with his New York Correspondence School was a specific reaction against the exclusionary facade of art history and the exclusive attitudes of Clement Greenberg and his Tenth Street School. This makes sense, but it applies more to other members of the NYCS than to its central figure, Ray Johnson, whose hermetic practices are as much an expression of his personality as a conscious social statement. The transformative socail potential and open spiritual quality of the Eternal Network never seemed to interest Ray. He was, and is, an atelier master in the old sense, even though he expresses himself through collage techniques that reach out into the world.

Many of Johnson’s best known works are the numerous lovely, dense printed collages in which he specifically used the names of “members” of the NYCS, occasionally adding or dropping names. These seemed to point inward to a closed circle. This is not to say that it was bad: it’s simply the way it was. In the first phase of correspondence art, the paradigm blossomed, flourished and found most of its major practitioners. In the second phase, correspondence art turned outward to the world.

It is at this point, during the first phase of the development of correspondence art -- but looking toward the second -- that it is best to explore the role of Fluxus in the development and dissemination of mail art.

Fluxus germinated in the artistic ferment of the late 1960s. Some of the Fluxus people found each other in John Cage’s and Richard Maxfield’s classes at The New School. Others met through George Maciunas’ publications, or committees, or the early festivals, and in the moving feasts of the era, such as the ongoing series of events at Yoko Ono’s loft on Chambers Street. By 1962, Fluxus was formed and named. A few individuals from Europe and America, such as the Czech artist Milan Knizak, the German Joseph Beuys, Geoff Hendricks or I, came into the group slightly late. Members of the initial cast of characters came and went through about 1966.

Fluxus has always been an unlikely movement: sprightly, hard to pin down, Zen-like in its reluctance to be described, it is hardly a movement at all. One may rather call it a rubric, a forum, an elusive philosophy made real by the fact that real artists engaged one another and the world in real acts under the name Fluxus. The edges of Fluxus have never been particularly crisp or brutal. So it is that Fluxus shares Daniel Spoerri with the Nouveaux Realistes; Christo has occasionally floated into Fluxus, though he has about him always a sense that he can never be part of any particular group with which he may share interests. Half a dozen of the most active and charming participants in the NYCS were very active in Fluxus. At times, even Ray Johnson took part in various Fluxus publications and events.

As elusive and unlikely to proselytize as Fluxus seemed, it also had a very public side. Massive festivals, grand publishing programs, extensive tours of performances and concerts, proposals for social reform and public housing came out of a movement that was as much characterized by these prophetic, even socio-political leanings as by such typically evanescent projects typified by George Brechts’ laconic events or Alison Knowles’ performances.

At first, the Fluxus artists active in the correspondence art world (including many who did not participate in the NYCS) were quite content to create private works. This is a paradox, because the works were implicitly public. They were printed. They used the mail for distribution. They invited the world to take part. At the same time, however, they went only to a small circle of artists, composers and designers who already knew each other. Some of them were openly skeptical about the value of being too public and outgoing in what they did. This, too, is a paradox, since to be an artist is, by definition, to be a public person, but many Fluxus artists have always wavered between the public character of making art and the private quality of their approach to art and life. It may even be because they see art and life as intertwined that the art has a distinctly private side, as life does.

Still, Fluxus had a public edge and an absolutely public intention, and correspondence art took its place in Fluxus practice along with festivals, projects, films, concerts and all the rest. These included mail art pieces by individuals, and marvelous series of publications, post cards, stamps and stationery published by George Maciunas for Fluxus artists including Bob Watts, Robert Filliou, Ben Vautier, Daniel Spoerri, and others among us. There was even a Fluxus Postal Kit prepared in 1966 complete with a Fluxpost cancellation mark, permitting an entire, Fluxus-controlled postal exchange to take place.

By the late 1960s, the public opportunities of correspondence art and mail art became manifestly visible. It was then that the prophetic side of Fluxus emerged, establishing the second phase of mail art. Now, for the first time, the correspondence art -- in the previous sense that the term has been used here -- that reached out to the public, embodied not only correspondence art, but a larger, and admittedly less private, mail art. Through this outreach, the extraordinary latent power for international communication became overt, termed “The Eternal Network” by Robert Filliou (See “End Note” Chapter 42 ed.). It was at this time that mail art first created, and began to make real, its potential for social change and for contributing new forms of communication to the world.

Fluxus was a forum for experimentation. The commitment to experimentation and to research was profound. It was characteristic that Fluxus participants not only asked “Why?” but “How?” -- and then they would generally go on to ask “Why not?” and “How else?” A fair number of Fluxus members came to art from untraditional backgrounds -- Spoerri from ballet, Higgins from music and printing, Paik from music and robotics, Filliou from economics, Brecht from natural and biological sciences, and so on. Others, such as Alison Knowles or Wolf Vostell were trained as artists, yet they developed a highly experimental notion of what art could be. Finally, the ringmaster of the Fluxus circus, George Maciunas, was both pragmatic and experimental. As the chief editor and frequent organizer of Fluxus activities, his paradoxical whims, highly refined organizational sensibility and peculiar administrative quirks gave Fluxus its unique flavor and offered Fluxus artists the wide range of philosophical permissions and encouragements that came to characterize the Fluxus ethos.

Fluxus was the first group of artists to understand the potential of the postal system as a world-spanning, cost-effective distribution system. It was open. It went everywhere. The direct operating cost to the artist was low. If the potential was visible, however, Fluxus did not fill it at first. The implicit public quality of the postal system and its use by Fluxus means that early Fluxus activities were more public in theory than they were in practice. The reason for this is the ability to reach out to almost anyone, anywhere through the mail. This can be as much a guarantee of privacy as publicity. Because of this, many early Fluxus exchanges using the mail were rather like telephone calls for objects. They used a public network, but they were not broadcast. The largest use of the mails at that time involved a kind of narrowcasting, with the mailing of George Maciunas’s policy letters and the Mail Order Fluxshops.

Public engagement requires more than establishing potentially public media. It requires reaching out and finding effective ways to open a public dialogue. In the early 1960s, Fluxus was years away from its eventual public impact. Even though publicity was implicit in many Fluxus projects and activities, the activities were not yet fully public. Nam June Paik’s ambitious program for renewing television was a perfect example. He was already doing television work in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but he was doing it conceptually, in the laboratory of the Fluxus community and exchanging his ideas in the invisible academy. He reached out with manifestoes and through his landmark correspondence project, The University of Avant-Garde Hinduism. Even so, the University was more private than public.

The University and Paik’s mailed pieces implied an eventual public medium, however, and Paik had always shown a genius for publicity. The University became an opening salvo in his long-term plan. Using the mail, he perfected a tactic that today would be termed an opinion leader strategy. He used it to establish the network of personal contacts that he would later use to bring his video projects to life. It was a private, narrowcast network. The first public network that gave Fluxus a broadcast voice came with the creation of Something Else Press, and especially the Something Else Newsletter.

At first Fluxus artists took part in correspondence art as private individuals. Some were involved in Nouveau Realisme, some in the New York Correspondence School, some as individual participants on the growing network. By the end of the 1960s, a number of Fluxus people had begun to view mail art as a medium offering unique potentials and challenges. We saw beyond the basic issue of art through the mail, and began to explore the reaches and media of correspondence and mail themselves.

The first major step was taken by Dick Higgins when he established Something Else Press and the Something Else Press Newsletter. The Press was an innovative publishing house designed to bring experimental and avant garde work to the public eye in well designed, handsome, durable books. It is now acknowledged and admired as one of the early sources of much contemporary art. Higgins himself is famed as the essayist who brought the term “intermedia” into current usage. When Higgins wrote his seminal essay on intermedia in 1968, he sought a format to make it widely known. The form he chose was that of the newsletter.

In his newsletter, he created an inexpensive medium for sharing art and art ideas with thousands of readers. It was through his ever-expanding list of readers, book buyers, recipients of the newsletter and the Press’ catalogues that Higgins first redefined the mail art network. This is a significant moment in mail art, even though Higgins did not view the newsletter as a mail art project. For the first time, a correspondence artist consciously used the mails as a regular medium of public communication. Though the newsletter was outbound in its form it had a tone that encouraged response and participation, a fact that Higgins and the voluminous files and archives of his Press demonstrate. Higgins respondents and correspondents moved into the network and into the art world. Staid artists became experimental, and experimental artists came into contact with other experimental artists. Something Else Press, founded as an outgrowth of Fluxus was small, but it was decidely public in conception. It became the locus of a vast resonating network of correspondents. Something Else Press became a central node in the development of experimental art in America, the entire rage of intermedia, new music, concrete poetry and Fluxus work that Dick Higgins termed “the arts of the new mentality.” It is vital to note the development of a network intended as a forum through which ideas might be exchanged and through which like minds might come into communication. This was a public realization of the idea inchoate in the New York Correspondence School, never fully realized due to the highly private, personal context that characterized the NYCS. Further, it was through the Something Else Press that the projects of artists such as Robert Filliou, George Brecht, Daniel Spoerri and even Ray Johnson himself first found a broad public.

The next Fluxus contribution to correspondence art and to mail art was the exploration and use of the medium of mail as a communication system. These projects came in three parts. The first had to do with communication, the second with exhibition and the third with publishing.

When Fluxus began, the art world was a much smaller place and experimental artists comprised a far less significant proportion of the art world than today. It was difficult to find out who was who or to reach others who might share given interests. In the early days of Fluxus, George Maciunas regularly published the Fluxus mailing lists and membership lists. This permitted ready access to people about whom one might wish to know more. It also suggested to some of us the notion of contacting those whom one didn’t know; to find out who they were, what they were doing, and what made them interesting enough to incorporate the Fluxus list.

Starting in 1966 at Fluxus West, I began to publish annual compilations of the Fluxus lists, adding to those lists interesting artists whom we were able to locate and identify. By 1972, the lists had grown to a point where we published over 1400 names and addresses, together, where possible, with phone numbers. The 1972 list was published in cooperation with Canada’s Image Bank. It was released in hundreds of copies, distributed gratis to artists, arts organizations and publishers around the world. The list became the core of the first FILE Magazine artists’ directory, was used to develop Flash Art’s Art Diary, and, in expanded and better researched versions, served such staid reference tomes as Who’s Who in American Art and Who’s Who in America. The project was an act of social responsibility; access to a fuller universe of information in a professional environment marked by restricted communication. The restriction of communication is a tool and a weapon. It gives power to those who possess the media of communication and it works against those who lack rich success. It seemed to us that certain individuals at the center of art world media -- critics, curators, dealers -- could reach anyone, while the rest of us had a hard time finding jealously guarded mailing lists to reach others. The wide publication of the lists, right or wrong, changed all that. The reference tools and media that grew from our lists had an impact on the art world that was not forseen when, in order to gain greater control over our own communication, Fluxus West began the annual directory and publications.

The existence of such substantial numbers of people, many -- if not most -- interested in communicating with one another and experimentally inclined (at least from time to time) suggested new ways of exhibiting art and of preparing exhibitions. The first such notions were rudimentary. It was tough to bring large works of art out of Eastern Europe in crates, but a big drawing or a suite of photos could easily be put in an envelope to be mailed out as a letter, albeit a thick letter. So it was that at first, even as we were using the mail to create experimental works as individual artists, we were also using the mail to transmit fairly ordinary or traditional art works for exhibitions.

Many of the exhibitions presented at Fluxus West were shipped through the mail, not mail art, but mailed art that was then installed as any art might be. Exhibitions of work by many artists came in the mail: Milan Knizak, Ben Vautier, Christo, George Brecht, and group shows like Young Hungarian Artists, Young Swiss Artists, A Small Show and the original Inch Art project that Terry Reid later carried further in Australia.

At the start of the 1970s, a number of exhibitions blossomed simultaneously that were to transform correspondence art and mail art from private activity to public access. The first projects were the major mail art shows organized by Marcia Tucker at the Whitney Museum, to which Ray Johnson’s personal friends and New York Correspondence School colleagues were invited, and the 1971 Biennal of Paris, curated by French art historian and critic Jean-Marc Poinsot, involving the several dozen figures who were at that time seen as the leading artists in the field.

At first, the mails were used to create exhibitions or used as a forum for private artists whose interactions were exhibited. The leap to a public process seems to have emerged from an idea that I had after my experience with the lists. I reasoned that the lists themselves might be used as the body of artists invited to exhibit. The notion went through stages. When George Neubert then curator of the Oakland Museum, offered me a one-man exhibition for 1972, I chose a one-year project inviting people to correspond with me through the museum. This invitation started with the use of the lists and grew to become public. A second project was mounted at the University of Washington museum, The Henry Art Gallery, in Seattle. At the Henry Gallery, we addressed the public directly to create enormous regional group participants, incidentally involving participants from afar through extended media and wide public coverage. The final apotheosis was a project entitled Omaha Flow Systems, mounted at the Joslyn Art Museum in the Spring of 1973.

For Omaha Flow Systems, we devised a number of projects and sub-projects, using all of the administrative and analytic tools available to us. The show, while serving to model a wide variety of ideas and projects, became best known as the largest mail art project to date -- or since. Thousands of invitations were mailed, and mass media, local, regional, national and international, were used.

Over 20,000 items were received at the Joslyn, with many tens of thousands of additional viewer contacts, in-put/out-put transactions, systems that we could not trace, satellite exhibitions at other institutions across the region and around the world. The recent histories of mail art show that Omaha Flow Systems became the basic model for all mail art exhibitions since 1973, and -- in its sub-projects -- as the model for several uses of mail art and correspondence art in both exhibition and other forms. In many cases, mail art projects modeled on the paradigm developed in Omaha did not come from Omaha directly. Rather, the model was adapted, say, by an artist from South Dakota who invited a friend from Iowa to participate. The Iowan created a mail art show that was an inspiration to some artists from Staten Island. The Staten Island show influenced some people in Connecticut, and so on. Further, several shows developed at the same time as Omaha Flow Systems, also using our lists and research, had enormous direct influence. These included, most notably, Davi Det Hompson’s Cyclopedia, and the several exhibitions organized by Terry Reid and by the Canadian mail art geniuses at Image Bank. The idea began to take on its own life as a medium or an intermedium, rather than as the project or work of one artist.

The publishing paradigms developed through Fluxus have had substantial impact on mail art. At first, the notion of newsletters and periodicals was treated playfully, as, for example, Nam June Paik’s Review of the University of Avant Garde Hinduism, or Daniel Spoerri’s magazine from the Greek island of Simi. Dick Higgins, as already discussed, took a further step with the Something Else Press Newsletter. George Brecht created the V-TRE newspaper. George Maciunas carried it forward, allied conceptually and physically to the production of Fluxus multiples and concerts. Where the Fluxus publishing ethos came directly into the realm of contemporary mail art was in Amazing Facts Magazine and the birth of New York Correspondence School Weekly Breeder.

Amazing Facts Magazine was a crudely assembled publication created at Fluxus West in 1968. We gathered our mail, put it into a folio with a cover, and sent it out. The idea lasted one issue, but established a notion of gathering as the editorial principle for a magazine. Independently in Germany, Thomas Niggl was creating Omnibus News, the first truly gathered or accumulated magazine in multiple editions. These two preceeded the better known Ace Space Company anthologies gathered and published by Dana Atchley, and, finally, the Assembling anthologies (See Chapter 27 ed.) developed by Henry Korn, Richard Kostelanetz and Mike Metz, today the best known and most widely disseminated of such periodicals.

More quirky and playful, the New York Correspondence School Weekly Breeder was both a joke, and a way to establish regular, weekly contact with other artists. The NYCSWB was published through about ten or eleven issues at Fluxus West, then passed to Stu Horn, a Philadelphia artist. Horn, already well known as The Northwest Mounted Valise, a longtime friend of Ray Johnson and a talented graphic poet, produced a number of issues for the second volume and then passed the periodical to Bill Gaglione and Tim Mancusi in San Francisco. Gaglione and Mancusi took the idea on, and through their network of friends and correspondents, transformed the NYCSWB into an odd -- and oddly influential -- periodical. Starting with its modest, single-sheet beginnings in 1971, the NYCSWB grew to spark the phenomenon in publishing known as the “Dadazine,” a format adopted by mail artists that spread farther to influence artists books and publishing in fields as diverse as punk rock and art criticism.

I feel that mail art has four eras. The first is the private era. The private era lasted from the early 1950s through the middle1960s. It is characterized by the sorts of exchanges I discuss in the article, and some exchanges characteristic of that era continue even today.

The second era began when Fluxus sought to amke mail art public. It began with the Something Else Newsletter and it really took off with my projects and experiments aimed specifically at a radical interactive broadcast use of the mails. The biggest projects were the One Year One Man Show, Work in Progress, and Omaha Flow Systems. These projects culminated the experiments of the second era and became the foundation of the third era.

The explosion of the third era began with the One Year One Man Show, Work in Progress, and Omaha Flow Systems. It was also due in great part to Tom Albright’s major coverage of mail art. The role he played in putting mail art before the widest possible public was incalculable. My three shows had vast international outreach on the art network and a broad public audience in the regions where the shows took place. Albright’s reviews of the One Year One Man Show in the San Francisco Chronicle and art Gallery magazine were still located in the art world. His ten-section, two-part series in Rolling Stone was a major public signal. These coincided with several other projects of the same time: Davi det Hompson’s Cyclopedia (1973); the birth of FILE magazine (1972); the publication of the first Image Bank Image Directories (1971-1972); the largest publication and widest circulation to that time of the Fluxus West International Directory of the Arts, done in cooperatin with Image Bank (1973); the birth of ‘zines with the New York Correspondence School Weekly Breeder (1971). All these took place during the same two or three year period.

I feel that I came into mail art at the end of the private phase. When I came in, Ray was still corresponding with only a handful of people. These were almost all linked to one another through being introduced to each other by Ray himself. The Fluxus network was then still small. You can see the exact size by examining George Maciunas’ membership lists. Publicity was implicit, but only Dick Higgins had studied out how to make this work public before I came on the scene. He was the only one who had undertaken a workable program of public engagement, devoting the necessary discipline and resources to the task.

Some of us who had been active in the first two eras of mail art were irritated, even angered by the explosion of junk mail and self-serving egotism in the third. For one, I failed to recognize the fact that growth produces growing pains, that new artists need to explore, even to be stupid as they try their hand. The time was marked by hundreds of projects and exhibitions termed “first” and “first international,” as artists unaware of history and community each tried to become the leading figure in the network. At the same time, their striving was genuine. The debates had already begun that were to provide a platform for a renewed sense of community.

Disillusioned, I left the network in the mid 1970s. Ten years later, when the network reached out to me again, I saw that a shift had taken place. The network had become a community, characterized by genuine leaders each speaking for different visions and ideas. Artists such as Carlo Pittore, J.P. Jacob, Leavenworth Jackson, Chuck Welch, Vittore Baroni, Ullises Carrion, Anna Banana, Shozo Shimamoto, Dobrica Kamperelic and H.R. Fricker were not simply making work, but engaging in major discussions and debates -- by mail and in person. The network had produced historian-artists such as Michael Crane, John Held, Judith Hoffberg and Clemente Padin. This was the fourth era, an era characterized by moral intensity I hadn’t seen since the 1960s, by passion, by commitment and by a real interest in the network, a network seen as a human phenomenon more important than art. In this fourth phase, early adulthood, mail art had become a complete art form, practiced by tens of thousands around the world, by history, discourse, and community as any art form is.

It was also a time of blurred boundaries. Carlo Pittore, an American, had an Italian name, aspirations toward a new renaissance of painting, and a position of global leadership as a spokesman for the network. Judith Hoffberg, already a distinguished fine arts librarian and scholar, had emerged as an artist-publisher-archivist. Chuck Welch, J.P. Jacob, and Vittore Baroni had become artist-philosophers.

Even as the art world continued to ignore these artists, they were creating an art world of their own, and creating a world of communication that extended once again far beyond the boundaries of art. When I had last seen the mail art network, it was primarily locked inside the art world, despite our best intentions. It was essentially focused in the centers of the art world in Europe and North America. When I returned, I found an evolutionary growth that brought mail art from a tentative beginning in Latin America to full flower, increased activity in Asia, the birth of activity in Africa and in the Middle East. I also found evidence of the same touchiness, pettiness and egotism that had characterized the 1970s.

Members of the mail art network, in striving to establish a philosophical basis, had sometimes established petty heirarchies complete with rules and orthodox standards of behavior. Women had difficulties with the network and with its behavior, summed neatly with rubber stamp artist, Freya Zabitsky’s mail art slogan, “Men make manifestoes, women make friends.” Members of the network wanted to be accepted by the art world at the same time as they rejected its rules, leading to the many complications that any love-hate relationship creates. It was a transitional era, exciting and flawed as any time of transition must be. It was marked by earnest striving and by the huge lapses that attend every endeavor that is earnest. Today, in 1992, correspondence art, mail art and the network seem to be in the fourth phase, though I sense hints of a new current emerging. That discussion is not history, but prediction, and it doesn’t belong here.

From the beginning, several trends have been clear in correspondence art and mail art. One has been the inherent opposition between private correspondence and public dialogue. Another has been the way in which the network has used the tension between these two polarities to give birth to new ways of approaching art.

There has always been a sense of playful experiment. At its best, it has been a source of delight, of dialogue, of new art. At its worst, it has exacerbated the shallow egotism that can mark any medium and the self-aggrandisement that attends all the arts, since art always asks the attention of an audience to the work and persona of individuals. In league with one another and in opposition to one another, members of the network have established a community of dialogue that is now entering its fourth decade. When we recall that Dada flourished for a few brief years before dissolving, or that Abstract Expressionism hardly ever existed before it became history itself, that is an interesting fact. It suggests that the network may be a community, while correspondence art and mail art have grown beyond community into art forms, just as easel painting grew from an innovation to an art form. Different artists who use this medium will create the kinds of art with it that interest them.

It is precisely that fact that has made it possible for some members of what Robert Filliou termed “The Eternal Network” to pursue their spiritual concerns, the vision of a global community. It may be their action and concern that give rise to the fifth phase in the history of mail art and correspondence art, or they may simply carry on within a larger frame. That’s a story to be told in a few more years.


This article appears in the historical and critical anthology on mail art, The Eternal Network. The book -- edited by Chuck Welch -- is published by University of Calgary Press. The article is based on Ken Friedman’s 1984 article, “Mail Art History: The Fluxus Factor,” published in “Mail Art Then and Now,” a special mail art exhibition issue of The Franklin Furnace Flue, Vol. 4, issues 3 and 4, Winter 1984.

Copyright © 1990, 1994 by Ken Friedman. All rights reserved.
This text may be quoted and printed freely with proper acknowledgment.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism, Jonathan Lethem

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . .

—John Donne

Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator—marked by her forever—remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I've described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov's novel. Lichberg later became a prominent journalist in the Nazi era, and his youthful works faded from view. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg's tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory? The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Another hypothesis is that Nabokov, knowing Lichberg's tale perfectly well, had set himself to that art of quotation that Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called “higher cribbing.” Literature has always been a crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast. Little of what we admire in Nabokov's Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter. Still: did Nabokov consciously borrow and quote?

“When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.” The line comes from Don Siegel's 1958 film noir, The Lineup, written by Stirling Silliphant. The film still haunts revival houses, likely thanks to Eli Wallach's blazing portrayal of a sociopathic hit man and to Siegel's long, sturdy auteurist career. Yet what were those words worth—to Siegel, or Silliphant, or their audience—in 1958? And again: what was the line worth when Bob Dylan heard it (presumably in some Greenwich Village repertory cinema), cleaned it up a little, and inserted it into “Absolutely Sweet Marie”? What are they worth now, to the culture at large?

Appropriation has always played a key role in Dylan's music. The songwriter has grabbed not only from a panoply of vintage Hollywood films but from Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Junichi Saga's Confessions of a Yakuza. He also nabbed the title of Eric Lott's study of minstrelsy for his 2001 album Love and Theft. One imagines Dylan liked the general resonance of the title, in which emotional misdemeanors stalk the sweetness of love, as they do so often in Dylan's songs. Lott's title is, of course, itself a riff on Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel, which famously identifies the literary motif of the interdependence of a white man and a dark man, like Huck and Jim or Ishmael and Queequeg—a series of nested references to Dylan's own appropriating, minstrel-boy self. Dylan's art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture, like the Civil War poetry of the Confederate bard Henry Timrod, resuscitated in lyrics on Dylan's newest record, Modern Times. Dylan's originality and his appropriations are as one.

The same might be said of all art. I realized this forcefully when one day I went looking for the John Donne passage quoted above. I know the lines, I confess, not from a college course but from the movie version of 84, Charing Cross Road with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft. I checked out 84, Charing Cross Road from the library in the hope of finding the Donne passage, but it wasn't in the book. It's alluded to in the play that was adapted from the book, but it isn't reprinted. So I rented the movie again, and there was the passage, read in voice-over by Anthony Hopkins but without attribution. Unfortunately, the line was also abridged so that, when I finally turned to the Web, I found myself searching for the line “all mankind is of one volume” instead of “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.”

My Internet search was initially no more successful than my library search. I had thought that summoning books from the vasty deep was a matter of a few keystrokes, but when I visited the website of the Yale library, I found that most of its books don't yet exist as computer text. As a last-ditch effort I searched the seemingly more obscure phrase “every chapter must be so translated.” The passage I wanted finally came to me, as it turns out, not as part of a scholarly library collection but simply because someone who loves Donne had posted it on his homepage. The lines I sought were from Meditation 17 in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which happens to be the most famous thing Donne ever wrote, containing as it does the line “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” My search had led me from a movie to a book to a play to a website and back to a book. Then again, those words may be as famous as they are only because Hemingway lifted them for his book title.

Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers' texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.

In 1941, on his front porch, Muddy Waters recorded a song for the folklorist Alan Lomax. After singing the song, which he told Lomax was entitled “Country Blues,” Waters described how he came to write it. “I made it on about the eighth of October '38,” Waters said. “I was fixin' a puncture on a car. I had been mistreated by a girl. I just felt blue, and the song fell into my mind and it come to me just like that and I started singing.” Then Lomax, who knew of the Robert Johnson recording called “Walkin' Blues,” asked Waters if there were any other songs that used the same tune. “There's been some blues played like that,” Waters replied. “This song comes from the cotton field and a boy once put a record out—Robert Johnson. He put it out as named ‘Walkin' Blues.' I heard the tune before I heard it on the record. I learned it from Son House.” In nearly one breath, Waters offers five accounts: his own active authorship: he “made it” on a specific date. Then the “passive” explanation: “it come to me just like that.” After Lomax raises the question of influence, Waters, without shame, misgivings, or trepidation, says that he heard a version by Johnson, but that his mentor, Son House, taught it to him. In the middle of that complex genealogy, Waters declares that “this song comes from the cotton field.”

Blues and jazz musicians have long been enabled by a kind of “open source” culture, in which pre-existing melodic fragments and larger musical frameworks are freely reworked. Technology has only multiplied the possibilities; musicians have gained the power to duplicate sounds literally rather than simply approximate them through allusion. In Seventies Jamaica, King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry deconstructed recorded music, using astonishingly primitive pre-digital hardware, creating what they called “versions.” The recombinant nature of their means of production quickly spread to DJs in New York and London. Today an endless, gloriously impure, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of music.

Visual, sound, and text collage—which for many centuries were relatively fugitive traditions (a cento here, a folk pastiche there)—became explosively central to a series of movements in the twentieth century: futurism, cubism, Dada, musique concrète, situationism, pop art, and appropriationism. In fact, collage, the common denominator in that list, might be called the art form of the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first. But forget, for the moment, chronologies, schools, or even centuries. As examples accumulate—Igor Stravinsky's music and Daniel Johnston's, Francis Bacon's paintings and Henry Darger's, the novels of the Oulipo group and of Hannah Crafts (the author who pillaged Dickens's Bleak House to write The Bondwoman's Narrative), as well as cherished texts that become troubling to their admirers after the discovery of their “plagiarized” elements, like Richard Condon's novels or Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons—it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production.

In a courtroom scene from The Simpsons that has since entered into the television canon, an argument over the ownership of the animated characters Itchy and Scratchy rapidly escalates into an existential debate on the very nature of cartoons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!” declares the show's hot-tempered cartoon-producer-within-a-cartoon, Roger Meyers Jr. “You take away our right to steal ideas, where are they going to come from?” If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones—more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths—The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don't strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid's “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, or Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch's life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.

Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one's voice isn't just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing.

What happens when an allusion goes unrecognized? A closer look at The Waste Land may help make this point. The body of Eliot's poem is a vertiginous mélange of quotation, allusion, and “original” writing. When Eliot alludes to Edmund Spenser's “Prothalamion” with the line “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song,” what of readers to whom the poem, never one of Spenser's most popular, is unfamiliar? (Indeed, the Spenser is now known largely because of Eliot's use of it.) Two responses are possible: grant the line to Eliot, or later discover the source and understand the line as plagiarism. Eliot evidenced no small anxiety about these matters; the notes he so carefully added to The Waste Land can be read as a symptom of modernism's contamination anxiety. Taken from this angle, what exactly is postmodernism, except modernism without the anxiety?

The surrealists believed that objects in the world possess a certain but unspecifiable intensity that had been dulled by everyday use and utility. They meant to reanimate this dormant intensity, to bring their minds once again into close contact with the matter that made up their world. André Breton's maxim “Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” is an expression of the belief that simply placing objects in an unexpected context reinvigorates their mysterious qualities.

This “crisis” the surrealists identified was being simultaneously diagnosed by others. Martin Heidegger held that the essence of modernity was found in a certain technological orientation he called “enframing.” This tendency encourages us to see the objects in our world only in terms of how they can serve us or be used by us. The task he identified was to find ways to resituate ourselves vis-à-vis these “objects,” so that we may see them as “things” pulled into relief against the ground of their functionality. Heidegger believed that art had the great potential to reveal the “thingness” of objects.

The surrealists understood that photography and cinema could carry out this reanimating process automatically; the process of framing objects in a lens was often enough to create the charge they sought. Describing the effect, Walter Benjamin drew a comparison between the photographic apparatus and Freud's psychoanalytic methods. Just as Freud's theories “isolated and made analyzable things which had heretofore floated along unnoticed in the broad stream of perception,” the photographic apparatus focuses on “hidden details of familiar objects,” revealing “entirely new structural formations of the subject.”

It's worth noting, then, that early in the history of photography a series of judicial decisions could well have changed the course of that art: courts were asked whether the photographer, amateur or professional, required permission before he could capture and print an image. Was the photographer stealing from the person or building whose photograph he shot, pirating something of private and certifiable value? Those early decisions went in favor of the pirates. Just as Walt Disney could take inspiration from Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr., the Brothers Grimm, or the existence of real mice, the photographer should be free to capture an image without compensating the source. The world that meets our eye through the lens of a camera was judged to be, with minor exceptions, a sort of public commons, where a cat may look at a king.

Novelists may glance at the stuff of the world too, but we sometimes get called to task for it. For those whose ganglia were formed pre-TV, the mimetic deployment of pop-culture icons seems at best an annoying tic and at worst a dangerous vapidity that compromises fiction's seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic Always, where it ought to reside. In a graduate workshop I briefly passed through, a certain gray eminence tried to convince us that a literary story should always eschew “any feature which serves to date it” because “serious fiction must be Timeless.” When we protested that, in his own well-known work, characters moved about electrically lit rooms, drove cars, and spoke not Anglo-Saxon but postwar English—and further, that fiction he'd himself ratified as great, such as Dickens, was liberally strewn with innately topical, commercial, and timebound references—he impatiently amended his proscription to those explicit references that would date a story in the “frivolous Now.” When pressed, he said of course he meant the “trendy mass-popular-media” reference. Here, transgenerational discourse broke down.

I was born in 1964; I grew up watching Captain Kangaroo, moon landings, zillions of TV ads, the Banana Splits, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I was born with words in my mouth—“Band-Aid,” “Q-tip,” “Xerox”—object-names as fixed and eternal in my logosphere as “taxicab” and “toothbrush.” The world is a home littered with pop-culture products and their emblems. I also came of age swamped by parodies that stood for originals yet mysterious to me—I knew Monkees before Beatles, Belmondo before Bogart, and “remember” the movie Summer of '42 from a Mad magazine satire, though I've still never seen the film itself. I'm not alone in having been born backward into an incoherent realm of texts, products, and images, the commercial and cultural environment with which we've both supplemented and blotted out our natural world. I can no more claim it as “mine” than the sidewalks and forests of the world, yet I do dwell in it, and for me to stand a chance as either artist or citizen, I'd probably better be permitted to name it.

Consider Walker Percy's The Moviegoer:

Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.
Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a YouTube rebroadcast of the Berlin Wall's fall—i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar—it's not a surprise that some of today's most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in reimagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what's taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights.

Whatever charge of tastelessness or trademark violation may be attached to the artistic appropriation of the media environment in which we swim, the alternative—to flinch, or tiptoe away into some ivory tower of irrelevance—is far worse. We're surrounded by signs; our imperative is to ignore none of them.

The idea that culture can be property—intellectual property—is used to justify everything from attempts to force the Girl Scouts to pay royalties for singing songs around campfires to the infringement suit brought by the estate of Margaret Mitchell against the publishers of Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone. Corporations like Celera Genomics have filed for patents for human genes, while the Recording Industry Association of America has sued music downloaders for copyright infringement, reaching out-of-court settlements for thousands of dollars with defendants as young as twelve. ASCAP bleeds fees from shop owners who play background music in their stores; students and scholars are shamed from placing texts facedown on photocopy machines. At the same time, copyright is revered by most established writers and artists as a birthright and bulwark, the source of nurture for their infinitely fragile practices in a rapacious world. Plagiarism and piracy, after all, are the monsters we working artists are taught to dread, as they roam the woods surrounding our tiny preserves of regard and remuneration.

A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense. In this regard, few of us question the contemporary construction of copyright. It is taken as a law, both in the sense of a universally recognizable moral absolute, like the law against murder, and as naturally inherent in our world, like the law of gravity. In fact, it is neither. Rather, copyright is an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation.

Thomas Jefferson, for one, considered copyright a necessary evil: he favored providing just enough incentive to create, nothing more, and thereafter allowing ideas to flow freely, as nature intended. His conception of copyright was enshrined in the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This was a balancing act between creators and society as a whole; second comers might do a much better job than the originator with the original idea.

But Jefferson's vision has not fared well, has in fact been steadily eroded by those who view the culture as a market in which everything of value should be owned by someone or other. The distinctive feature of modern American copyright law is its almost limitless bloating—its expansion in both scope and duration. With no registration requirement, every creative act in a tangible medium is now subject to copyright protection: your email to your child or your child's finger painting, both are automatically protected. The first Congress to grant copyright gave authors an initial term of fourteen years, which could be renewed for another fourteen if the author still lived. The current term is the life of the author plus seventy years. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that each time Mickey Mouse is about to fall into the public domain, the mouse's copyright term is extended.

Even as the law becomes more restrictive, technology is exposing those restrictions as bizarre and arbitrary. When old laws fixed on reproduction as the compensable (or actionable) unit, it wasn't because there was anything fundamentally invasive of an author's rights in the making of a copy. Rather it was because copies were once easy to find and count, so they made a useful benchmark for deciding when an owner's rights had been invaded. In the contemporary world, though, the act of “copying” is in no meaningful sense equivalent to an infringement—we make a copy every time we accept an emailed text, or send or forward one—and is impossible anymore to regulate or even describe.

At the movies, my entertainment is sometimes lately preceded by a dire trailer, produced by the lobbying group called the Motion Picture Association of America, in which the purchasing of a bootleg copy of a Hollywood film is compared to the theft of a car or a handbag—and, as the bullying supertitles remind us, “You wouldn't steal a handbag!” This conflation forms an incitement to quit thinking. If I were to tell you that pirating DVDs or downloading music is in no way different from loaning a friend a book, my own arguments would be as ethically bankrupt as the MPAA's. The truth lies somewhere in the vast gray area between these two overstated positions. For a car or a handbag, once stolen, no longer is available to its owner, while the appropriation of an article of “intellectual property” leaves the original untouched. As Jefferson wrote, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Yet industries of cultural capital, who profit not from creating but from distributing, see the sale of culture as a zero-sum game. The piano-roll publishers fear the record companies, who fear the cassette-tape manufacturers, who fear the online vendors, who fear whoever else is next in line to profit most quickly from the intangible and infinitely reproducible fruits of an artist's labor. It has been the same in every industry and with every technological innovation. Jack Valenti, speaking for the MPAA: “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.”

Thinking clearly sometimes requires unbraiding our language. The word “copyright” may eventually seem as dubious in its embedded purposes as “family values,” “globalization,” and, sure, “intellectual property.” Copyright is a “right” in no absolute sense; it is a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results. So let's try calling it that—not a right but a monopoly on use, a “usemonopoly”—and then consider how the rapacious expansion of monopoly rights has always been counter to the public interest, no matter if it is Andrew Carnegie controlling the price of steel or Walt Disney managing the fate of his mouse. Whether the monopolizing beneficiary is a living artist or some artist's heirs or some corporation's shareholders, the loser is the community, including living artists who might make splendid use of a healthy public domain.

A few years ago someone brought me a strange gift, purchased at MoMA's downtown design store: a copy of my own first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music, expertly cut into the contours of a pistol. The object was the work of Robert The, an artist whose specialty is the reincarnation of everyday materials. I regard my first book as an old friend, one who never fails to remind me of the spirit with which I entered into this game of art and commerce—that to be allowed to insert the materials of my imagination onto the shelves of bookstores and into the minds of readers (if only a handful) was a wild privilege. I was paid $6,000 for three years of writing, but at the time I'd have happily published the results for nothing. Now my old friend had come home in a new form, one I was unlikely to have imagined for it myself. The gun-book wasn't readable, exactly, but I couldn't take offense at that. The fertile spirit of stray connection this appropriated object conveyed back to me—the strange beauty of its second use—was a reward for being a published writer I could never have fathomed in advance. And the world makes room for both my novel and Robert The's gun-book. There's no need to choose between the two.

In the first life of creative property, if the creator is lucky, the content is sold. After the commercial life has ended, our tradition supports a second life as well. A newspaper is delivered to a doorstep, and the next day wraps fish or builds an archive. Most books fall out of print after one year, yet even within that period they can be sold in used bookstores and stored in libraries, quoted in reviews, parodied in magazines, described in conversations, and plundered for costumes for kids to wear on Halloween. The demarcation between various possible uses is beautifully graded and hard to define, the more so as artifacts distill into and repercuss through the realm of culture into which they've been entered, the more so as they engage the receptive minds for whom they were presumably intended.

Active reading is an impertinent raid on the literary preserve. Readers are like nomads, poaching their way across fields they do not own—artists are no more able to control the imaginations of their audiences than the culture industry is able to control second uses of its artifacts. In the children's classic The Velveteen Rabbit, the old Skin Horse offers the Rabbit a lecture on the practice of textual poaching. The value of a new toy lies not it its material qualities (not “having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle”), the Skin Horse explains, but rather in how the toy is used. “Real isn't how you are made. . . . It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” The Rabbit is fearful, recognizing that consumer goods don't become “real” without being actively reworked: “Does it hurt?” Reassuring him, the Skin Horse says: “It doesn't happen all at once. . . . You become. It takes a long time. . . . Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” Seen from the perspective of the toymaker, the Velveteen Rabbit's loose joints and missing eyes represent vandalism, signs of misuse and rough treatment; for others, these are marks of its loving use.

Artists and their surrogates who fall into the trap of seeking recompense for every possible second use end up attacking their own best audience members for the crime of exalting and enshrining their work. The Recording Industry Association of America prosecuting their own record-buying public makes as little sense as the novelists who bristle at autographing used copies of their books for collectors. And artists, or their heirs, who fall into the trap of attacking the collagists and satirists and digital samplers of their work are attacking the next generation of creators for the crime of being influenced, for the crime of responding with the same mixture of intoxication, resentment, lust, and glee that characterizes all artistic successors. By doing so they make the world smaller, betraying what seems to me the primary motivation for participating in the world of culture in the first place: to make the world larger.

The Walt Disney Company has drawn an astonishing catalogue from the work of others: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, Song of the South, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Robin Hood, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, and, alas, Treasure Planet, a legacy of cultural sampling that Shakespeare, or De La Soul, could get behind. Yet Disney's protectorate of lobbyists has policed the resulting cache of cultural materials as vigilantly as if it were Fort Knox—threatening legal action, for instance, against the artist Dennis Oppenheim for the use of Disney characters in a sculpture, and prohibiting the scholar Holly Crawford from using any Disney-related images—including artwork by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Oldenburg, and others—in her monograph Attached to the Mouse: Disney and Contemporary Art.

This peculiar and specific act—the enclosure of commonwealth culture for the benefit of a sole or corporate owner—is close kin to what could be called imperial plagiarism, the free use of Third World or “primitive” artworks and styles by more privileged (and better-paid) artists. Think of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, or some of the albums of Paul Simon or David Byrne: even without violating copyright, those creators have sometimes come in for a certain skepticism when the extent of their outsourcing became evident. And, as when Led Zeppelin found themselves sued for back royalties by the bluesman Willie Dixon, the act can occasionally be an expensive one. To live outside the law, you must be honest: perhaps it was this, in part, that spurred David Byrne and Brian Eno to recently launch a “remix” website, where anyone can download easily disassembled versions of two songs from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album reliant on vernacular speech sampled from a host of sources. Perhaps it also explains why Bob Dylan has never refused a request for a sample.

Kenneth Koch once said, “I'm a writer who likes to be influenced.” It was a charming confession, and a rare one. For so many artists, the act of creativity is intended as a Napoleonic imposition of one's uniqueness upon the universe—après moi le déluge of copycats! And for every James Joyce or Woody Guthrie or Martin Luther King Jr., or Walt Disney, who gathered a constellation of voices in his work, there may seem to be some corporation or literary estate eager to stopper the bottle: cultural debts flow in, but they don't flow out. We might call this tendency “source hypocrisy.” Or we could name it after the most pernicious source hypocrites of all time: Disnial.

My reader may, understandably, be on the verge of crying, “Communist!” A large, diverse society cannot survive without property; a large, diverse, and modern society cannot flourish without some form of intellectual property. But it takes little reflection to grasp that there is ample value that the term “property” doesn't capture. And works of art exist simultaneously in two economies, a market economy and a gift economy.

The cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection. I go into a hardware store, pay the man for a hacksaw blade, and walk out. I may never see him again. The disconnectedness is, in fact, a virtue of the commodity mode. We don't want to be bothered, and if the clerk always wants to chat about the family, I'll shop elsewhere. I just want a hacksaw blade. But a gift makes a connection. There are many examples, the candy or cigarette offered to a stranger who shares a seat on the plane, the few words that indicate goodwill between passengers on the late-night bus. These tokens establish the simplest bonds of social life, but the model they offer may be extended to the most complicated of unions—marriage, parenthood, mentorship. If a value is placed on these (often essentially unequal) exchanges, they degenerate into something else.

Yet one of the more difficult things to comprehend is that the gift economies—like those that sustain open-source software—coexist so naturally with the market. It is precisely this doubleness in art practices that we must identify, ratify, and enshrine in our lives as participants in culture, either as “producers” or “consumers.” Art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—is received as a gift is received. Even if we've paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price. The daily commerce of our lives proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift conveys an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration.

The way we treat a thing can change its nature, though. Religions often prohibit the sale of sacred objects, the implication being that their sanctity is lost if they are bought and sold. We consider it unacceptable to sell sex, babies, body organs, legal rights, and votes. The idea that something should never be commodified is generally known as inalienability or unalienability—a concept most famously expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the phrase “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . .” A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art. But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. I don't maintain that art can't be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising. This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift; i.e., it's never really for the person it's directed at.

The power of a gift economy remains difficult for the empiricists of our market culture to understand. In our times, the rhetoric of the market presumes that everything should be and can be appropriately bought, sold, and owned—a tide of alienation lapping daily at the dwindling redoubt of the unalienable. In free-market theory, an intervention to halt propertization is considered “paternalistic,” because it inhibits the free action of the citizen, now reposited as a “potential entrepreneur.” Of course, in the real world, we know that child-rearing, family life, education, socialization, sexuality, political life, and many other basic human activities require insulation from market forces. In fact, paying for many of these things can ruin them. We may be willing to peek at Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire or an eBay auction of the ova of fashion models, but only to reassure ourselves that some things are still beneath our standards of dignity.

What's remarkable about gift economies is that they can flourish in the most unlikely places—in run-down neighborhoods, on the Internet, in scientific communities, and among members of Alcoholics Anonymous. A classic example is commercial blood systems, which generally produce blood supplies of lower safety, purity, and potency than volunteer systems. A gift economy may be superior when it comes to maintaining a group's commitment to certain extra-market values.

Another way of understanding the presence of gift economies—which dwell like ghosts in the commercial machine—is in the sense of a public commons. A commons, of course, is anything like the streets over which we drive, the skies through which we pilot airplanes, or the public parks or beaches on which we dally. A commons belongs to everyone and no one, and its use is controlled only by common consent. A commons describes resources like the body of ancient music drawn on by composers and folk musicians alike, rather than the commodities, like “Happy Birthday to You,” for which ASCAP, 114 years after it was written, continues to collect a fee. Einstein's theory of relativity is a commons. Writings in the public domain are a commons. Gossip about celebrities is a commons. The silence in a movie theater is a transitory commons, impossibly fragile, treasured by those who crave it, and constructed as a mutual gift by those who compose it.

The world of art and culture is a vast commons, one that is salted through with zones of utter commerce yet remains gloriously immune to any overall commodification. The closest resemblance is to the commons of a language: altered by every contributor, expanded by even the most passive user. That a language is a commons doesn't mean that the community owns it; rather it belongs between people, possessed by no one, not even by society as a whole.

Nearly any commons, though, can be encroached upon, partitioned, enclosed. The American commons include tangible assets such as public forests and minerals, intangible wealth such as copyrights and patents, critical infrastructures such as the Internet and government research, and cultural resources such as the broadcast airwaves and public spaces. They include resources we've paid for as taxpayers and inherited from previous generations. They're not just an inventory of marketable assets; they're social institutions and cultural traditions that define us as Americans and enliven us as human beings. Some invasions of the commons are sanctioned because we can no longer muster a spirited commitment to the public sector. The abuse goes unnoticed because the theft of the commons is seen in glimpses, not in panorama. We may occasionally see a former wetland paved; we may hear about the breakthrough cancer drug that tax dollars helped develop, the rights to which pharmaceutical companies acquired for a song. The larger movement goes too much unremarked. The notion of a commons of cultural materials goes more or less unnamed.

Honoring the commons is not a matter of moral exhortation. It is a practical necessity. We in Western society are going through a period of intensifying belief in private ownership, to the detriment of the public good. We have to remain constantly vigilant to prevent raids by those who would selfishly exploit our common heritage for their private gain. Such raids on our natural resources are not examples of enterprise and initiative. They are attempts to take from all the people just for the benefit of a few.

Artists and intellectuals despondent over the prospects for originality can take heart from a phenomenon identified about twenty years ago by Don Swanson, a library scientist at the University of Chicago. He called it “undiscovered public knowledge.” Swanson showed that standing problems in medical research may be significantly addressed, perhaps even solved, simply by systematically surveying the scientific literature. Left to its own devices, research tends to become more specialized and abstracted from the real-world problems that motivated it and to which it remains relevant. This suggests that such a problem may be tackled effectively not by commissioning more research but by assuming that most or all of the solution can already be found in various scientific journals, waiting to be assembled by someone willing to read across specialties. Swanson himself did this in the case of Raynaud's syndrome, a disease that causes the fingers of young women to become numb. His finding is especially striking—perhaps even scandalous—because it happened in the ever-expanding biomedical sciences.

Undiscovered public knowledge emboldens us to question the extreme claims to originality made in press releases and publishers' notices: Is an intellectual or creative offering truly novel, or have we just forgotten a worthy precursor? Does solving certain scientific problems really require massive additional funding, or could a computerized search engine, creatively deployed, do the same job more quickly and cheaply? Lastly, does our appetite for creative vitality require the violence and exasperation of another avant-garde, with its wearisome killing-the-father imperatives, or might we be better off ratifying the ecstasy of influence—and deepening our willingness to understand the commonality and timelessness of the methods and motifs available to artists?

A few years ago, the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced a retrospective of the works of Dariush Mehrjui, then a fresh enthusiasm of mine. Mehrjui is one of Iran's finest filmmakers, and the only one whose subject was personal relationships among the upper-middle-class intelligentsia. Needless to say, opportunities to view his films were—and remain—rare indeed. I headed uptown for one, an adaptation of J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, titled Pari, only to discover at the door of the Walter Reade Theater that the screening had been canceled: its announcement had brought threat of a lawsuit down on the Film Society. True, these were Salinger's rights under the law. Yet why would he care that some obscure Iranian filmmaker had paid him homage with a meditation on his heroine? Would it have damaged his book or robbed him of some crucial remuneration had the screening been permitted? The fertile spirit of stray connection—one stretching across what is presently seen as the direst of international breaches—had in this case been snuffed out. The cold, undead hand of one of my childhood literary heroes had reached out from its New Hampshire redoubt to arrest my present-day curiosity.

A few assertions, then:

Any text that has infiltrated the common mind to the extent of Gone With the Wind or Lolita or Ulysses inexorably joins the language of culture. A map-turned-to-landscape, it has moved to a place beyond enclosure or control. The authors and their heirs should consider the subsequent parodies, refractions, quotations, and revisions an honor, or at least the price of a rare success.

A corporation that has imposed an inescapable notion—Mickey Mouse, Band-Aid—on the cultural language should pay a similar price.

The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors but “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate.

Contemporary copyright, trademark, and patent law is presently corrupted. The case for perpetual copyright is a denial of the essential gift-aspect of the creative act. Arguments in its favor are as un-American as those for the repeal of the estate tax.

Art is sourced. Apprentices graze in the field of culture.

Digital sampling is an art method like any other, neutral in itself.

Despite hand-wringing at each technological turn—radio, the Internet—the future will be much like the past. Artists will sell some things but also give some things away. Change may be troubling for those who crave less ambiguity, but the life of an artist has never been filled with certainty.

The dream of a perfect systematic remuneration is nonsense. I pay rent with the price my words bring when published in glossy magazines and at the same moment offer them for almost nothing to impoverished literary quarterlies, or speak them for free into the air in a radio interview. So what are they worth? What would they be worth if some future Dylan worked them into a song? Should I care to make such a thing impossible?

Any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The citations that go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas. The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks?

Artists and writers—and our advocates, our guilds and agents—too often subscribe to implicit claims of originality that do injury to these truths. And we too often, as hucksters and bean counters in the tiny enterprises of our selves, act to spite the gift portion of our privileged roles. People live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift. If we devalue and obscure the gift-economy function of our art practices, we turn our works into nothing more than advertisements for themselves. We may console ourselves that our lust for subsidiary rights in virtual perpetuity is some heroic counter to rapacious corporate interests. But the truth is that with artists pulling on one side and corporations pulling on the other, the loser is the collective public imagination from which we were nourished in the first place, and whose existence as the ultimate repository of our offerings makes the work worth doing in the first place.

As a novelist, I'm a cork on the ocean of story, a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I'll be blown away. For the moment I'm grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.

* * *
This key to the preceding essay names the source of every line I stole, warped, and cobbled together as I “wrote” (except, alas, those sources I forgot along the way). First uses of a given author or speaker are highlighted in red. Nearly every sentence I culled I also revised, at least slightly—for necessities of space, in order to produce a more consistent tone, or simply because I felt like it.

The phrase “the ecstasy of influence,” which embeds a rebuking play on Harold Bloom's “anxiety of influence,” is lifted from spoken remarks by Professor Richard Dienst of Rutgers.

“. . . a cultivated man of middle age . . .” to “. . . hidden, unacknowledged memory?” These lines, with some adjustments for tone, belong to the anonymous editor or assistant who wrote the dust-flap copy of Michael Maar's The Two Lolitas. Of course, in my own experience, dust-flap copy is often a collaboration between author and editor. Perhaps this was also true for Maar.

“The history of literature . . .” to

“. . . borrow and quote?” comes from Maar's book itself.

“Appropriation has always . . .” to “. . . Ishmael and Queequeg . . .” This paragraph makes a hash of remarks from an interview with Eric Lott conducted by David McNair and Jayson Whitehead, and incorporates both interviewers' and interviewee's observations. (The text-interview form can be seen as a commonly accepted form of multivocal writing. Most interviewers prime their subjects with remarks of their own—leading the witness, so to speak—and gently refine their subjects' statements in the final printed transcript.)

“I realized this . . .” to “. . . for a long time.” The anecdote is cribbed, with an elision to avoid appropriating a dead grandmother, from Jonathan Rosen's The Talmud and the Internet. I've never seen 84, Charing Cross Road, nor searched the Web for a Donne quote. For me it was through Rosen to Donne, Hemingway, website, et al.

“When I was thirteen . . .” to “. . . no plagiarist at all.” This is from William Gibson's “God's Little Toys,” in Wired magazine. My own first encounter with William Burroughs, also at age thirteen, was less epiphanic. Having grown up with a painter father who, during family visits to galleries or museums, approvingly noted collage and appropriation techniques in the visual arts (Picasso, Claes Oldenburg, Stuart Davis), I was gratified, but not surprised, to learn that literature could encompass the same methods.

“In 1941, on his front porch . . .” to “. . . ‘this song comes from the cotton field.'” Siva Vaidhyanathan, Copyrights and Copywrongs.

“. . . enabled by a kind . . . freely reworked.” Kembrew McLeod, Freedom of Expression. In Owning Culture, McLeod notes that, as he was writing, he

happened to be listening to a lot of old country music, and in my casual listening I noticed that six country songs shared exactly the same vocal melody, including Hank Thompson's “Wild Side of Life,” the Carter Family's “I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” Roy Acuff's “Great Speckled Bird,” Kitty Wells's “It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Reno & Smiley's “I'm Using My Bible for a Roadmap,” and Townes Van Zandt's “Heavenly Houseboat Blues.” . . . In his extensively researched book, Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll, Nick Tosches documents that the melody these songs share is both “ancient and British.” There were no recorded lawsuits stemming from these appropriations. . . .
“. . . musicians have gained . . . through allusion.” Joanna Demers, Steal This Music.

“In Seventies Jamaica . . .” to “. . . hours of music.” Gibson.

“Visual, sound, and text collage . . .” to “. . . realm of cultural production.” This plunders, rewrites, and amplifies paragraphs from McLeod's Owning Culture, except for the line about collage being the art form of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, which I heard filmmaker Craig Baldwin say, in defense of sampling, in the trailer for a forthcoming documentary, Copyright Criminals.

“In a courtroom scene . . .” to “. . . would cease to exist.” Dave Itzkoff, New York Times.

“. . . the remarkable series of ‘plagiarisms' . . .” to “. . . we want more plagiarism.” Richard Posner, combined from The Becker-Posner Blog and The Atlantic Monthly.

“Most artists are brought . . .” to “. . . by art itself.” These words, and many more to follow, come from Lewis Hyde's The Gift. Above any other book I've here plagiarized, I commend The Gift to your attention.

“Finding one's voice . . . filiations, communities, and discourses.” Semanticist George L. Dillon, quoted in Rebecca Moore Howard's “The New Abolitionism Comes to Plagiarism.”

“Inspiration could be . . . act never experienced.” Ned Rorem, found on several “great quotations” sites on the Internet.

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted . . . out of chaos.” Mary Shelley, from her introduction to Frankenstein.

“What happens . . .” to “. . . contamination anxiety.” Kevin J.H. Dettmar, from “The Illusion of Modernist Allusion and the Politics of Postmodern Plagiarism.”

“The surrealists believed . . .” to the Walter Benjamin quote. Christian Keathley's Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees, a book that treats fannish fetishism as the secret at the heart of film scholarship. Keathley notes, for instance, Joseph Cornell's surrealist-influenced 1936 film Rose Hobart, which simply records “the way in which Cornell himself watched the 1931 Hollywood potboiler East of Borneo, fascinated and distracted as he was by its B-grade star”—the star, of course, being Rose Hobart herself. This, I suppose, makes Cornell a sort of father to computer-enabled fan-creator reworkings of Hollywood product, like the version of George Lucas's The Phantom Menace from which the noxious Jar Jar Binks character was purged; both incorporate a viewer's subjective preferences into a revision of a filmmaker's work.

“. . . early in the history of photography” to “. . . without compensating the source.” From Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig, the greatest of public advocates for copyright reform, and the best source if you want to get radicalized in a hurry.

“For those whose ganglia . . .” to

“. . . discourse broke down.” From David Foster Wallace's essay “E Unibus Pluram,” reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. I have no idea who Wallace's “gray eminence” is or was. I inserted the example of Dickens into the paragraph; he strikes me as overlooked in the lineage of authors of “brand-name” fiction.

“I was born . . . Mary Tyler Moore Show.” These are the reminiscences of Mark Hosler from Negativland, a collaging musical collective that was sued by U2's record label for their appropriation of “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.” Although I had to adjust the birth date, Hosler's cultural menu fits me like a glove.

“The world is a home . . . pop-culture products . . .” McLeod.

“Today, when we can eat . . .” to “. . . flat sights.” Wallace.

“We're surrounded by signs, ignore none of them.” This phrase, which I unfortunately rendered somewhat leaden with the word “imperative,” comes from Steve Erickson's novel Our Ecstatic Days.

“. . . everything from attempts . . .” to “defendants as young as twelve.” Robert Boynton, The New York Times Magazine, “The Tyranny of Copyright?”

“A time is marked . . .” to “. . . what needs no defense.” Lessig, this time from The Future of Ideas.

“Thomas Jefferson, for one . . .” to “‘. . . respective Writings and Discoveries.'” Boynton.

“. . . second comers might do a much better job than the originator

. . .” I found this phrase in Lessig, who is quoting Vaidhyanathan, who himself is characterizing a judgment written by Learned Hand.

“But Jefferson's vision . . . owned by someone or other.” Boynton.

“The distinctive feature . . .” to “. . . term is extended.” Lessig, again from The Future of Ideas.

“When old laws . . .” to “. . . had been invaded.” Jessica Litman, Digital Copyright.

“‘I say to you . . . woman home alone.'” I found the Valenti quote in McLeod. Now fill in the blank: Jack Valenti is to the public domain as ______ is to ________.

“In the first . . .” to “. . . builds an archive.” Lessig.

“Most books . . . one year . . .” Lessig.

“Active reading is . . .” to “. . . do not own . . .” This is a mashup of Henry Jenkins, from his Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, and Michel de Certeau, whom Jenkins quotes.

“In the children's classic . . .” to

“. . . its loving use.” Jenkins. (Incidentally, have the holders of the copyright to The Velveteen Rabbit had a close look at Toy Story? There could be a lawsuit there.)

“The Walt Disney Company . . . alas, Treasure Planet . . .” Lessig.

“Imperial Plagiarism” is the title of an essay by Marilyn Randall.

“. . . spurred David Byrne . . . My Life in the Bush of Ghosts . . .” Chris Dahlen, Pitchfork—though in truth by the time I'd finished, his words were so utterly dissolved within my own that had I been an ordinary cutting-and-pasting journalist it never would have occurred to me to give Dahlen a citation. The effort of preserving another's distinctive phrases as I worked on this essay was sometimes beyond my capacities; this form of plagiarism was oddly hard work.

“Kenneth Koch . . .” to “. . . déluge of copycats!” Emily Nussbaum, The New York Times Book Review.

“You can't steal a gift.” Dizzy Gillespie, defending another player who'd been accused of poaching Charlie Parker's style: “You can't steal a gift. Bird gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it.''

“A large, diverse society . . . intellectual property.” Lessig.

“And works of art . . . ” to “. . .

marriage, parenthood, mentorship.” Hyde.

“Yet one . . . so naturally with the market.” David Bollier, Silent Theft.

“Art that matters . . .” to “. . . bought and sold.” Hyde.

“We consider it unacceptable . . .” to “‘. . . certain unalienable Rights . . .'” Bollier, paraphrasing Margaret Jane Radin's Contested Commodities.

“A work of art . . .” to “. . . constraint upon our merchandising.” Hyde.

“This is the reason . . . person it's directed at.” Wallace.

“The power of a gift . . .” to “. . . certain extra-market values.” Bollier, and also the sociologist Warren O. Hagstrom, whom Bollier is paraphrasing.

“Einstein's theory . . .” to “. . . public domain are a commons.” Lessig.

“That a language is a commons . . . society as a whole.” Michael Newton, in the London Review of Books, reviewing a book called Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language by Daniel Heller-Roazen. The paraphrases of book reviewers are another covert form of collaborative culture; as an avid reader of reviews, I know much about books I've never read. To quote Yann Martel on how he came to be accused of imperial plagiarism in his Booker-winning novel Life of Pi,

Ten or so years ago, I read a review by John Updike in the New York Times Review of Books [sic]. It was of a novel by a Brazilian writer, Moacyr Scliar. I forget the title, and John Updike did worse: he clearly thought the book as a whole was forgettable. His review—one of those that makes you suspicious by being mostly descriptive . . . oozed indifference. But one thing about it struck me: the premise. . . . Oh, the wondrous things I could do with this premise.
Unfortunately, no one was ever able to locate the Updike review in question.

“The American commons . . .” to

“. . . for a song.” Bollier.

“Honoring the commons . . .” to

“. . . practical necessity.” Bollier.

“We in Western . . . public good.” John Sulston, Nobel Prize‒winner and co-mapper of the human genome.

“We have to remain . . .” to “. . . benefit of a few.” Harry S Truman, at the opening of the Everglades National Park. Although it may seem the height of presumption to rip off a president—I found claiming Truman's stolid advocacy as my own embarrassing in the extreme—I didn't rewrite him at all. As the poet Marianne Moore said, “If a thing had been said in the best way, how can you say it better?” Moore confessed her penchant for incorporating lines from others' work, explaining, “I have not yet been able to outgrow this hybrid method of composition.”

“. . . intellectuals despondent . . .” to “. . . quickly and cheaply?” Steve Fuller, The Intellectual. There's something of Borges in Fuller's insight here; the notion of a storehouse of knowledge waiting passively to be assembled by future users is suggestive of both “The Library of Babel” and “Kafka and his Precursors.”

“. . . one of Iran's finest . . .” to “. . . meditation on his heroine?” Amy Taubin, Village Voice, although it was me who was disappointed at the door of the Walter Reade Theater.

“The primary objective . . .” to “. . . unfair nor unfortunate.” Sandra Day O'Connor, 1991.

“. . . the future will be much like the past” to “. . . give some things away.” Open-source film archivist Rick Prelinger, quoted in McLeod.

“Change may be troubling . . . with certainty.” McLeod.

“. . . woven entirely . . .” to “. . . without inverted commas.” Roland Barthes.

“The kernel, the soul . . .” to “. . . characteristics of phrasing.” Mark Twain, from a consoling letter to Helen Keller, who had suffered distressing accusations of plagiarism (!). In fact, her work included unconsciously memorized phrases; under Keller's particular circumstances, her writing could be understood as a kind of allegory of the “constructed” nature of artistic perception. I found the Twain quote in the aforementioned Copyrights and Copywrongs, by Siva Vaidhyanathan.

“Old and new . . .” to “. . . we all quote.” Ralph Waldo Emerson. These guys all sound alike!

“People live differently . . . wealth as a gift.” Hyde.

“. . . I'm a cork . . .” to “. . . blown away.” This is adapted from The Beach Boys song “'Til I Die,” written by Brian Wilson. My own first adventure with song-lyric permissions came when I tried to have a character in my second novel quote the lyrics “There's a world where I can go and/Tell my secrets to/In my room/In my room.” After learning the likely expense, at my editor's suggestion I replaced those with “You take the high road/I'll take the low road/I'll be in Scotland before you,” a lyric in the public domain. This capitulation always bugged me, and in the subsequent British publication of the same book I restored the Brian Wilson lyric, without permission. Ocean of Story is the title of a collection of Christina Stead's short fiction.

Saul Bellow, writing to a friend who'd taken offense at Bellow's fictional use of certain personal facts, said: “The name of the game is Give All. You are welcome to all my facts. You know them, I give them to you. If you have the strength to pick them up, take them with my blessing.” I couldn't bring myself to retain Bellow's “strength,” which seemed presumptuous in my new context, though it is surely the more elegant phrase. On the other hand, I was pleased to invite the suggestion that the gifts in question may actually be light and easily lifted.

The notion of a collage text is, of course, not original to me. Walter Benjamin's incomplete Arcades Project seemingly would have featured extensive interlaced quotations. Other precedents include Graham Rawle's novel Diary of an Amateur Photographer, its text harvested from photography magazines, and Eduardo Paolozzi's collage-novel Kex, cobbled from crime novels and newspaper clippings. Closer to home, my efforts owe a great deal to the recent essays of David Shields, in which diverse quotes are made to closely intertwine and reverberate, and to conversations with editor Sean Howe and archivist Pamela Jackson. Last year David Edelstein, in New York magazine, satirized the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism case by creating an almost completely plagiarized column denouncing her actions. Edelstein intended to demonstrate, through ironic example, how bricolage such as his own was ipso facto facile and unworthy. Although Viswanathan's version of “creative copying” was a pitiable one, I differ with Edelstein's conclusions.

The phrase Je est un autre, with its deliberately awkward syntax, belongs to Arthur Rimbaud. It has been translated both as “I is another” and “I is someone else,” as in this excerpt from Rimbaud's letters:

For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it is not its fault. To me this is obvious: I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I listen to it: I make a stroke of the bow: the symphony begins to stir in the depths, or springs on to the stage.

If the old fools had not discovered only the false significance of the Ego, we should not now be having to sweep away those millions of skeletons which, since time immemorial, have been piling up the fruits of their one-eyed intellects, and claiming to be, themselves, the authors!