Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence”

Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-aste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks? (Lethem 68)

I just finished February 2007’s Harper’s and there was a series of great essays on copyright, citation, and appropriation. If you’re not a Harper’s reader, they’re worth checking out.

Molotov Man

The image above, a photo by Susan Meiselas of Nicaraguan Sandinista Pablo Arauz in 1979, is the central image of concern in the article “On the Rights of Molotov Man: Appropriation and the Art of Context.” Meiselas took the photo and found that it has been appropriated by a variety of groups, but she found it objectionable when artist Joy Garnett appropriated the work for a painting. Garnett argues that she owes Meiselas nothing more than a citation, but Meiselas’s argument is that Garnett has decontextualized the Arauz and the act — “converted [it] into the emblem of an abstract riot” (58).

This “conversation” between Meiselas and Garnett got me thinking quite a bit about context and copyright before moving into Jonathan Lethem’s amazing essay “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” where Lethem argues for a more open public commons where works are more easily appropriated without concerns of copyright law. His argument depends on the differences between a gift exchange and commodity exchange: in a gift economy there “a feeling-bond between two people” established by the gift, whereas this connection does not exist in commodity exchange. A piece of art (a CD, a movie, etc.) can of course still be sold and have this gift quality, but if we continue this movement toward a complete commodity exchange, we’re losing the connections amongst people.

What makes Lethem’s argument even more powerful is has ability to cite, quote, and plagiarize, and at the end of the essay is a “Key” in which he lists the sources for where he quoted without quotation marks, paraphrased, or altered others’ words. The essay is fantastic for Lethem’s ability to appropriate and cite in order to make such a good argument, and I have no qualms about admitting my complete adoration of it.

But then I wonder about how this essay works in relation to the prior dialogue between Meiselas and Garnett. Where does context fit into Lethem’s argument? And with that, ethics? Certainly I agree with his argument that once a work has been released into the public commons, it should be perceived as a honor to be appropriated, and that copyright should be used to ensure rights to original expressions, but not restrict subsequent re-working. But where does the ethics or this citing fit in? By this, I’m concerned with decontextualizing, with groups in power using images from other texts and appropriating those images for their own use and even domination of those not in power.

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5 Responses to Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence”

  1. joy says:

    I am surprised and really intrigued to accidentally come across yet another reference to these articles, and so many months after they came out in print. I normally wouldn’t butt in (and will butt out if my presence is perceived as a damper to conversation — pls. just say the word); however, these issues and the questions that you raise in this post are all extremely important to me, and I think probably, in the long run, to us all. I would be interested to know what folks consider to be “original”, and if that tired epithet can be applied at all these days. Also, the problem you raise, specifically: “…I’m concerned with decontextualizing, with groups in power using images from other texts and appropriating those images for their own use and even domination of those not in power.” — this is something that is the core of my concern as an artist. The conundrum of authorship has many facets. I would be happy to discuss it.

    Joy Garnett

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks, Joy, for adding to the discussion here. I wouldn’t at all consider your comment “butting in” and welcome any thoughts and questions you have.

    I think you ask a really good question about originality, and I too kind of wonder if the word “original” isn’t an outdated term that we might want to consider eschewing. However, I think we still need to understand that there is still creativity, which compositionist David Bartholomae defines in “Inventing the University”: “creativity is using old things in new ways“ (638). To me, this implies recontextualizing old texts and ideas, and perhaps even a bit of synesthesia or apophenia (or both).

    What I particularly liked about Lethem’s essay was his ability to recontextualize without necessarily decontextualizing his sources too much. I’m not sure where the boundaries lie, and if we can know what damage we are doing when we appropriate certain acts or artifacts — when is it ethical recontextualization, and when is it unethical decontextualization?

    Meiselas’s concern was that your painting decontextualized Arauz’s act of resistance, and I agree that it was decontextualized, but was it unethical, I think is a better question: that is, did it cause harm to someone’s dignity or remove the power of the original act? I’m not sure it did (and I also found it to be a particularly moving painting). But I guess I’m not sure if it didn’t, either.

  3. joy says:

    hi Michael, and thanks for welcoming me into your discussion.

    The statement, “creativity is using old things in new ways,“ hits the mark, for sure. It’s much like the term that lawyers and judges use: “transformative use”. If a use of a pre-existing work is deemed sufficiently transformative, then a new entity has been created (and the use is “fair”, as the courts would have it). What’s interesting is that often, the more “transformative” a work is, and hence the more it is decontextualized from its source material to create something “new”, the more likely the author of the source material will feel that their work has been misused in some way. The media scholar, Siva Vaidhyanathan (sivacracy.net) coined the phrase “author anxiety” to describe this sentiment of an author’s loss of control, and he attributes a majority of frivolous lawsuits to this kind of misplaced anxiousness.

    What’s imperative, I feel, is to realize that all authors are, to varying degrees, appropriators, and rely implicitly on having the freedom to decontextualize and recontextualize meanings, information, images, etc. When this happens, then we call it “art”. When it comes to visual art, the end result is only partly about appearances (form), whereas subtext, referencing, shifting of context and meaning: these are essential layers.

    Consider this: photography itself is nothing if not a method of appropriation and reframing. In the case of photojournalism, it is a reframing of “found events.” Here we consumers of culture and news rely heavily on the context as it is handed to us passive viewers; the notion that this context is “true” or “pure” or “neutral” is part of the myth of photography that we (still, even now) buy into. Such images determine a commonality — whether “true” or “false” — in our culture: viewing this image narrative on a daily basis is how we access “reality” and make decisions. And since photographers have only a nominal say in how their images are utilized by a powerful media machine, the notion that they can control the context of the images they shoot is, at best, naive.

    As for Pablo Arauz, his name came out of the shadows 30 years after his photograph was taken. It came out when Susan and I appeared in tandem on a panel at the NYU conference on fair use last year that the Harper’s article drew from. Pablo Arauz’s name, his personal saga, were not public knowledge before that moment. His name was not listed in the photo checklist when Meiselas’s book, Nicaragua, was first published, nor was it ever, to the best of my knowledge, attached to the photograph of him throwing the Molotov cocktail until her presentation at the NYU conference. It was in fact Meiselas’s photograph that first separated out — decontextualized — the iconic revolutionary figure from this individual, this fellow named Arauz. One might say that the power of her photograph lay not in its subject’s individual story, which never came to light in print until the Harper’s article, but in its iconicity, its universality: it’s subtext tells us “this is the image, the very face of resistance, of struggle.” The painting continues in that vein of iconic, ambiguous, symbolism, but with a twist that Susan didn’t like; what the painting might suggest, and what the photograph didn’t, is that revolution is in the mind of the beholder: that to some, it may seem more akin to a riot, depending on where you happen to be standing (literally). The old saw, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” might be useful here. I should emphasize, I don’t think Susan’s argument about context to be irrelevant, on the contrary, it raises some essential questions about control and ethics in journalism, and it does so intelligently. I just don’t think it actually applies to what happened between us.

  4. Michael says:

    Thanks Joy for that reply — I hadn’t even stopped to consider the naturalized “truthiness” of photography, when in fact, photography is decontextualizing.

  5. joy says:

    I guess there are a lot of details to think about; I’m still thinking about it all. It’s like a bottomless pit…

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