EBR post: December 2017

This month, we’re delighted to publish two pieces that complement each other through a mutual focus on intellectual property. Dani Spinosa’s review of David S. Roh’s Illegal Literature: Toward a Disruptive Creativity (2015) and the essay “Information Wants to be Free, Or Does It?: The Ethics of Datafication,” by Geoffrey Rockwell and Bettina Berendt, both deal with the treatment of content in an age of information.

We are also delighted to hear from digital artist and scholar Jhave Johnston; Jhave was kind enough to respond to Theadora Walsh’s review of his book Aesthetic Animisms (MIT Press, 2016). You can find Johnston’s “riPOSTe” (aka EBR response) here.

To start things off, in her review of Roh’s Illegal Literature, Dani Spinosa describes circumstances around literary works that sample from, mimic, and otherwise appropriate cultural texts. Calling Roh’s book “a literary and legal study of authorship and copyright,” Spinosa notes the long history of contention between creative authorship and the publishing industry and economy.

The legal battles explored in Roh’s text ask us to reconsider how readership, creativity, and book culture can be understood in relation to ideas of property, creative control, and copyright. It is an important distinction that the “illegal literature” that Roh describes and to which Spinosa links “plagiarists, parodists, and disruptive literature in general” is not the sampling of intertextuality’s past. Indeed, when Spinosa observes the shift from writing about authorship theoretically à la Barthes and Foucault to writing about the author in law and economy, I think she points to the transformation of how we understand content today. Content, creative or otherwise, is here framed as information, and the especial ease with which this is done so in an age of digitization (or, as Rockwell and Berendt describe it, “datafication”).

Such a crucial shift in how we think of creative content is tied to our treatment of texts, for instance, by way of copies and copy making. Mechanical and then digital reproduction have made us struggle to define, in scholarship as well as in law, what, in what forms, belong to whom, and as defined by what criteria.

I think of Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory cultures for his description of the consumer as an active producer in their own right: shapers of media products and entire media empires through fan-made art, fiction, and online/offline communities. These consumers, understood also as readers, are not passive, Spinosa holds. What is disrupted in one way, then, are the green light-granting figures of content production, discourse shapers, and canon makers.

In the vein of an imbalanced creative economy, Spinosa notices in Roh a tendency to idealize disruptive creativity: “we cannot praise the polyvocality and ‘gift economy’ potentials of networked computing (21) without also conceding that not everyone has access to this common.” Who is it, we might ask, who’s being left out?

Spinosa is correct that a further exploration of “bad disruption” is needed, and towards outlining one, I identify two kinds. Stealing content that is treated as information, content that is easier to steal because it has been abstracted from original forms as well as from the conditions of production, is not the same as stealing content through privilege—such as when minority individuals and groups have their work or even identities stolen. While there are many examples of this kind of theft throughout creative history, one of note is white American poet Michael Derrick Hudson, whose poetry became well-known after he began to publish under the pseudonym “Yi-Fen Chou”—the name of a Chinese woman that Hudson went to high school with. It is absolutely necessary to make these distinctions in “bad disruption,” which we could otherwise call uncritical disruption; the rhetoric of a gift economy of content sharing and sampling culture risks blurring the lines between proposed equal access and a system of privileged access indeed. The fact is that a gift economy cannot wax equality in the same breath that it is omits so many from producing. Who gets to publish disruptive work?

To truly not “disrupt for disruption’s sake,” there must be a reason to disrupt. There are particular groups that could benefit from this kind of work more than others—and they should be allowed to tell their own stories.

The ethics of sharing information and storytelling is explored in detail in Geoffrey Rockwell and Bettina Berendt’s essay, “Information Wants to be Free, Or Does It?: The Ethics of Datafication,” which also comes out this month in EBR. Rockwell and Berendt, two notable figures in the digital humanities, inquire into the creation, surveillance, and ethics of data when so much content—including the data that we produce of ourselves—is subject to a system of “datafication.”

A culture of sampling is posed here as a culture of sharing, particularly of sharing knowledge. Writing humanistically about new media technologies, Rockwell and Berendt take care to express their concerns surrounding the datafication of content about people and communities in particular. Stories, they argue, are in this sense not individual property at all—an interesting claim vis-à-vis the Roh text. Rather, by Rockwell and Berendt’s view, stories “belong to communities and are passed within the community.” The quality of stories as shared knowledge makes their datafication particularly circumspect: “What right have we to digitize these stories and store them up outside their context of telling?” The liveliness of the act of storytelling seems to oppose datafication, as that which is dynamic is difficult to store.

Please look forward to a review of Rockwell and Berendt’s essay in the near future!

As the term comes to a close, we at EBR wish you happy and restful holidays.

–Lai-Tze Fan
Associate Editor, EBR

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