Appropriation in Electronic Literature: MIT5 Talk

Here are the slides from my presentation at the MIT5 Conference. I was presenting on appropriation in electronic literature. The text of my talk (more notes than finished paper, though I’ll come back to this and post the finished paper to the MIT5 site when I get a chance) is below.

Appropriation in Electronic Literature and Digital Culture

A Spectrum of Appropriation

The Oxford English Dictionary cites two definitions of the word “appropriation” that are appropriate to the subject of our discussion here. The first and oldest definition of appropriation, dating back to 1393 is “The making of a thing private property, whether another’s or (as now commonly) one’s own; taking as one’s own or to one’s own use; concr. the thing so appropriated or taken possession of.” A more recent 2002 draft addition is “* Art (orig. U.S.). The practice or technique of reworking the images or styles contained in earlier works of art, esp. (in later use) in order to provoke critical re-evaluation of well-known pieces by presenting them in new contexts, or to challenge notions of individual creativity or authenticity in art.”

It’s important to note that while our main concern is those practices which fall under the latter definition, those practices may also include the former. We can think of the artistic practices of appropriation on a spectrum that ranges from coy modernist practices of referentiality in the work of writers such as TS Eliot, to the practice of recontextualizing and satirizing, such as Marcel Duchamp’s practice in the readymades or L.H.O.O.Q., to the practice of using one literary work as a basic material for another, as in Tom Philips A Humument, to the overt overwriting practices of Kathy Acker. At an extreme end of the spectrum of literary appropriation is plagiarism, simply taking someone else’s work and publishing it under your own name.

There is of course nothing new under the sun, and writers and artists have been making use of appropriation strategies since the ancient Greeks. Shakespeare borrowed both plot and occasionally specific lines from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England Scotland, and Ireland, and nearly every writer since Shakespeare has borrowed from his work, borrowing a plot, a situation, a line or several. The widespread use of appropriation is not nearly as surprising as the fact that a combination of the popular mythology of authorship and the dictates of contemporary copyright law have contributed to a popular illusion that most creative works are in any sense “original,” or that authorship is ever really a matter of a singular genius working in isolation from the texts and authors that have come before.

In our short talks and discussion today, we’ll be focusing on forms of appropriation in electronic literature and other textual digital artifacts that make use of appropriation strategies including reference, homage, overwriting, recontextualization, and outright thievery. We’ll be focusing on the ways that appropriation has affected our own work as writers in the networked digital environment. I’ll focus on the “softer” side of appropriation in electronic literature and digital art: those kinds of appropriation that use materials from other sources in order to recontextualize or comment on the originals in the creation of a new work. Nick will focus on “five-finger digital culture”: bolder and more extreme forms of appropriation in which artists explicitly take the words or material of others. Jill will discuss how appropriation shapes and structures the blogosphere. Following these short talks, we’ll have a more informal group discussion of the relationship between appropriation and collaboration and then welcome questions from the audience.

Before moving to examples of appropriation in electronic literature and in my own work, I’d like first to consider briefly the place of appropriation in network culture more generally.

The Appropriative Nature of the Networked Culture

While appropriation has always been a part of the processes of writing literature and making art more generally, with the growth of the internet and the rise of networked culture, concurrent with the inculcation of “postmodern” collage and pastiche into high and low culture, sampling, remixing, and mashup in music, film, and television, appropriation has become one of the principle modus operandi of culture in our day. The idea of hypertext itself is appropriative, resistant to the idea of any single written text or work of art existing in isolation. In conceptualizing a hypertext system, Ted Nelson wrote of the idea of literature that “Within bodies of writing, everywhere, there are linkages we tend not to see. The individual document, at hand, is what we deal with; we do not see the total linked collection of them all at once. But they are there, the documents not present as well as those that are, and the grand cat’s cradle among them all.” (NMR 447) Nelson conceived of the hypertext link as a device to make texts extend to those other texts from which they derived, and those that in turn were derived from them, as well as those that they were in conversation with. Nelson himself, in imagining his unrealized Xanadu hypertext system, clung quite deliberately to the notion of copyright – imagining a system in which every link, every borrowed and remixed piece of content would credit its owner with a micropayment. The hypertext system of the World Wide Web, however, has no similar system baked into it. While some wall their writing behind subscriptions or DRM apparatus that require users to pay to play, the general practice of the web is to simply publish information on the network, making it available to all free of charge. The question of who then owns the information, and the legal questions of what someone else may then do with it aside, the global hypertext network works so well only because we make these texts freely available, and because we feel free to link to any other text we want to.

Stewart Brand identified one of the central tensions of the network era at the first Hacker’s conference in 1984 when he said, “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.” The question, of course, isn’t really what information wants, but what people want. If we consider what authors and artists might want, in comparison to what their audiences might want, we might expect that the creators want to get paid for their work, while the audiences want unfettered access to it. But the equation is not that simple. While artists like to eat, it is in the nature of the vocation to value appreciation more than remuneration. Given a choice between an audience of one hundred devoted readers and a hundred dollar bill, I think many writers would forego the cash. Furthermore, while everyone wants to enjoy the fruits of their labors, artists raised in a multimediated culture recognize that the without unfettered access to other cultural products, without the ability to reference, reuse, remix, and sample from the culture, their work becomes nearly impossible. Imagine, for instance, an extremely copyrighted world in which it would be impossible to reference a television show, or a song, or a brand of toothpaste in a novel without first asking permission and paying a fee. Because so much of the twenty-first century lifeworld is owned, copyrighted and trademarked, it is almost impossible to create art that reflects contemporary reality without appropriating from it.

In his wonderfully plagiarized/pastiched essay in the February 2007 issue of Harper’s “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Letham notes that “Even as the law becomes more restrictive, technology is exposing those restrictions as bizarre and arbitrary.” The first generation raised on the network is furthermore wholeheartedly dismissing those restrictions. Few contemporary college students feel any qualms about downloading any music, television show, or movie they want to. Filesharing technology tends to stay ahead of industry attempts to police it. There is an enormous disjuncture between what is clearly becoming the most widely embraced cultural ethos and the evermore-restrictive copyright regime. There is no question in my mind who will lose this war, it’s already in the hands of a culture accustomed to borrowing, swapping, sharing, or from another perspective, stealing intellectual property. Yet piracy may be more benign than industry fearmongers make it out to be. The same college students who download gigabytes of music and movies illegally still purchase songs on iTunes, leave their dorm rooms to go to the movie theater, and pay exorbitant prices for tickets to see their favorite bands play live. The culture of downloaders might no longer be asking which aspects of their cultural consumption they need to pay for, but rather which they want to support. Having made the leap to rejecting contemporary copyright law altogether, many in this generation are also pushing the boundaries of fair use when it comes to using media artifacts owned by others in creating their own forms of expression.

I’m sure that most attending this conference are familiar with the Creative Commons movement, which attempts to find a middle ground between restrictive copyright regulations and the public domain, enabling creators to license their works in ways that permit that to be shared and reused to extents they determine. Since the birth of the movement, an enormous amount of textual, audio, and video content has been licensed in this fashion. Many artists are welcoming the opportunity to participate in a gift economy, and to contribute their own artwork as a material to be recontextualized, reused, and in a sense, recycled by others. While illegal appropriation of images, audio, and texts was a common practice in the early years of the Web, an increasing proportion of creative artists are making appropriation entirely permissible.
From my perspective as a writer and as a literary scholar, one of the most compelling questions about both these changes in attitude and practice with regard to copyright, and the changes in the nature of digital textuality more generally are what impact they will have on both the nature of literary artifacts, and on the culture in which they are produced and distributed. The emerging culture of electronic literature in particular provides some intriguing models of modes of appropriation. The field of electronic literature is largely one based on a gift economy, in which the majority of authors and journals publish and make their works freely available online. While to date, few works of electronic literature are published under the least restrictive Creative Commons licenses, which allow sampling and reuse, one can anticipate that in the future more authors will do so.

Different modes of appropriation are already an important part of the toolbox of electronic authors. I’ll provide a few examples of how electronic writers have made use of appropriation before discussing how appropriation has functioned in my own work.

Appropriation by Reference in Early Hypertext Fiction

Tearing a page from the modernist and postmodernist print authors who preceded them, referential appropriation was a common practice in the works of the authors of the first widely read hypertext fictions, published before the rise of the web in the Storypace platform. Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story, published in 1987 by Eastgate systems, for example, included characters named (Lolly and Naussica) after characters in other classic literary works, and includes quotations from other literary works including Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch and “Blow Up,” Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger,” quotations from Tolstoy and samples from a variety of poets. In afternoon, Joyce’s mode of appropriation in his fragmented narrative was clearly derivative of familiar modernist referentiality – direct attributed quotes and coy references that Joyce used to signal the reader to particular themes in his work, or to personality traits of particular characters.

Another classic work of Storyspace hypertext, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, published in 1995 by Eastgate Systems, made use of a variety of appropriation techniques in delivering a narrative that is to an extent itself about appropriation–specifically developing the theme of identity as a patchwork of appropriated parts. Patchwork Girl is an explicit response to and recontextualization of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Appropriation as a Method of Revitalizing “Classics” – Translation and Adaptation

Megan Sapnar’s Pushkin Translation
Sapnar and Ankerson’s Figure 5 Media Series
Barry Smylie’s Illiad
The Intruder by Natalie Bookchin

Appropriation as a Method of Harnessing Network Discourse

Many examples of art that use network traffic/metrics/etc. as basis for algorithmically generated art – for example
The Impermanence Agent

Appropriation and Collaboration

You and We
My Boyfriend Came Back from the War

Appropriation in My Work

The Unknown – Homage, Overwriting, Identity Appropriation, Network Effects, Meta-Appropriation.
Kind of Blue – Appropriation of characters, situation, and discourse model. Explicit appropriation.
Implementation — Physical appropriation of public spaces as writing media, direct appropriation of some other texts (for example US Iraq war propaganda leaflets).

Posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , .