Moroccan “Trance” Music: A Primer

I wrote a primer on Moroccan “trance” music for the March 2017 issue of The Wire.  The piece is built around the recently issued Dust to Digital set of Paul Bowles’ 1960 recordings made in Morocco, and covers (briefly!) the history of 78 recordings in Morocco, other ethnographic recordings such as those made by Ocora and by Philip Schuyler for Lyrichord in the 1970s and 1980s, the folk revival led by groups like Nass El Ghiwane, Jil Jilala and Lemchaheb in the 1970s, the history of recordings made at Jajouka and of the Gnawa brotherhoods, the long history of collaborations between jazz musicians and Moroccan traditional musicians, from Randy Weston through Peter Brotzmann and Ornette Coleman, the amazing career of Hassan Hakmoun and the more recent metal/noise sounds of Abu Lahab.  I meditate on “trance” as a word and phenomenon that spans both traditional and avant garde musics, secular and sacred sounds, and one that changes historically and geographically in meaning.  Bowles himself preferred the word “hypnotic” because it sounded more secular.  “Psychedelic” might work too.

The essay begins with this amazing quote from Bowles, from his essay “The Rif, To Music”:

“Few of them are as frank about their convictions as the official in Fez who told me: “I detest all folk music, and particularly ours here in Morocco. It sounds like the noises made by savages. Why should I help you to export a thing which we are trying to destroy? You are looking for tribal music. There are no more tribes. We have dissolved them. So the word means nothing. And there never was any tribal music anyway – only noise. Non, monsieur, I am not in accord with your project.”   In reality, the present government’s policy is far less extreme than this man’s opinion. The music itself has not been much tampered with – only the lyrics, which are now indoctrinated with patriotic sentiments. Practically all large official celebrations are attended by groups of folk musicians from all over the country; their travel and living expenses are paid by the government, and they perform before large audiences. As a result the performing style is becoming slick, and the extended forms are disappearing in favour of truncated versions which are devoid of musical sense.”


On the Bowerbird, The Difunta Correa and Some Architectures of Sense, An Interview with Alphonso Lingis

I interviewed American phenomenologist Alphonso Lingis for the EROS issue of landscape/architecture/political economy journal Scapegoat, that was co-edited by Christie Pearson and Nasrin Himada.  Lingis’ work has been of interest to me since the mid-1990s when I heard him speak at a Virtual Futures conference at Warwick in the UK.  Much of my current work on “the politics of vibration” involves a rethinking of Eros and its relation to subcultures in particular.

Lingis’ work consists largely in presenting a cross-species, even cosmopolitical phenomenology of what it means to seek to bind and be bound to other entities, in full awareness of our vulnerability and capacity for exploitation. In a series of books that begins with Excesses: Eros and Culture (1984) and Libido: The French Existential Theories (1986), continuing with the remarkable Abuses (1994) and Dangerous Emotions (2000), through to the recent Violence and Splendor (2011), Lingis documents the varieties of erotic experience, building on Plato’s “love of knowledge” (“philo-sophia”) and Freud’s meditations on the erotic drives and how they form “civilization and its discontents.” But Lingis goes much further, proposing, for example, the possibility of a civilization built around an unsublimated eros. He gives as historical evidence of this possibility the temples at Khajuraho in India. Yet his argument also relies on an intimate but rigorous analysis of his own erotic experiences.

Nothing Has Been Published

12038313_10153327443802568_1748218722531305016_nThe University of Chicago Press has just published Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism, co-authored by myself, Eric Cazdyn and Timothy Morton.  I wrote up my own thoughts on the book here a while ago.  It was a tough book to write: despite everything that’s said about Buddhism, we felt like we were entering a no-man’s land as we worked on it.  Exciting and unnerving at the same time.  I think it’s come out well though!  Here are the amazing blurbs from the back of the book:

“I have contemplated and endured NOTHING for so long that it did not seem right to break my practice or offer other readers something like insight, possibly a moment of sense-making and affirmation. But I break out of my trance to assert the emphatic necessity of this book, so erudite without loading us down, relentless in its ability to resignify. Sassy, brilliant, a genuine engagement with and of thought, this work tunes us to a thrilling, endorphinating way of thinking: my drug of choice.”—Avital Ronell, New York University

“The reader will delight in two important aspects of Nothing: a multitude of contemporary Buddhist responses to the great political and social changes that have affected Asian countries—imperialism, colonialism, communism, corporate capitalism—and rigorous elaboration of Lacanian psychoanalysis with Buddhist psychology. This book is exceptional.”—Alphonso Lingis, Pennsylvania State University

Two New Essays on Rethinking Intellectual Property

I have essays in two new collections of work on intellectual property.  The first, “From the Right to Copy to Practices of Copying”, in the Rosemarie Coombe, Darren Wershler and Martin Zeilinger edited volume Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Culture Online (University of Toronto Press, 2014) is an expansion on the conclusion of In Praise of Copying, which advocates a rethinking of intellectual property. We are living through fundamental shifts in the way in which human societies produce and share copies of things, such that we need to rethink intellectual property in a way that reflects the actual practices of copying that prevail today, rather than merely relying on legal definitions. I also advocate for certain legal reforms. Thinking about practices allows us to affirm that contemporary cultures of sharing are built around collective intentional acts, rather than simply being random transgressions of a self-evident law. The second essay, “Structures of Sharing: Depropriation and Intellectual Property Law”, in Intellectual Property Law for the 21st Century: Interdisciplinary Approaches (Irwin Law, 2014) develops a specific aspect of the argument above, namely the problem of appropriation as it relates to intellectual property law.  I argue that current practices of copying force us to try to think beyond ideas of originals and copies as private property, and to imagine new ways of thinking about copies outside of discourses of ownership.  I elaborate the idea of depropriation, objects that have no owners or are collectively owned, through an analysis of the work of French film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, and think through how depropriation could be integrated into legal models of IP, beyond traditional models of fair use or fair dealing.

In Praise of Copying Translated into Korean and Indonesian

In Praise of Copying was translated and published in Korean and Indonesian editions this year.

The Korean edition was published by Hong C Communication, and translated with great diligence and care by Seungyoung Noh, who often seemed to know more about my book than I did.

The Indonesian edition was produced by the KUNCI Cultural Studies Center in Yogyakarta, making use of the Creative Commons license that the book was issued with in an interesting and to me exemplary way, producing an edition that is principally available as a free PDF via their website (much like the free PDF available from the Harvard website), as well as a print edition that is being distributed to community libraries across Indonesia.  Ferdi Thajib of the group described the project as follows:

“We are a collective who since 1999 have been engaging in popular education approaches aimed at widening public criticality  With this rather broad aim, our activities have revolved around the promotion of local knowledge production practices and functioning ourselves as a hub that connects academia, social activists, cultural producers and the public at large in meaningful encounters
Around one and a half years ago, we received funding from Ford Foundation Indonesia to initiate a project looking at issues of Media and Technology convergence, which includes a component of publication of translated books on cultures of sharing within the digital environment. That is how we became acquainted with Mr. Boon’s work. The whole project allows us to work on three books, namely: Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture (which was published last year), the second one (if permission granted of course) would be In Praise of Copying, and the third installment would be Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.
Our first reason for translating the three books is that they all provide key insights to explain what is going on in other parts of the world in regarding to issues such as copyright, copy culture, sharing culture, file-sharing, creative commons etc. –  issues that are not new for us in Indonesia, but which have not received adequate critical discussion. This is not so much because of the lack of criticality per se, but more a matter if language barriers. We feel that the rapid development of vocabularies related to internet architecture and the radical changes it has brought to the cultural facets of everyday life has not progressed hand in hand with its better understanding in local settings; not only in daily situations, but also in legal/governmental/ policy making environments.
The second reason is related to the respective content of each book. The selection of In Praise of Copying is prompted by some of the ideas that Mr. Boon has brought up, especially in how he shed light on the entanglement of copying with various forms of cultural production and understanding across the globe. I personally believe that the philosophical take of Mr Boon on copying that crisscrosses the East and West binary may speak a lot to our potential readers here.
And another reason is the practical consideration of the licensing system used in circulating the  work. As one of our goals is to educate people about the importance of sharing, most of the texts that we have produced and published are distributed under Creative Commons A-NC-SA, including the last publication of Free Culture in Indonesian.”

You can read Thajib’s analysis (with Australian media researcher Alexandra Crosby) of copyright, the commons and sharing networks in Indonesia here, and a more detailed analysis of these issues in relation to video activism in Indonesia in the media studies journal Platform.  Thajib and Crosby’s work resonates in intriguing ways with the studies presented in the excellent Media Piracy in Emerging Economies report — and suggests an important set of emerging practices of open source sharing/distribution that utilize Creative Commons licensing — in emerging economies.

Cursing in Hip-Hop Essay in The Wire

I have an essay on obscene language in hip-hop in the latest issue of The Wire. It’s called “Dirty Talk”.  A lot of my recent favorites are referenced: various Odd Future acts, Azealia Banks, Zebra Katz, Danny Brown, Le1f.  The argument of the essay is about abjection, and the way that obscene language produces a kind of intimacy with something that can’t be talked about — and the way that music, as a form of vibration, is — that thing that can’t be talked about.  Having spent the last week listening a lot to the Kevin Gates record, I think I could have said a lot more about obscenity and violence, and the way that obscene language injects an almost physical force into language.  Well, to be continued …

This issue of The Wire has a lot going on: reflections on song by Rob Young, on improvisation by David Toop, Nina Power on digitized female voices and public address systems. Great to see the breadth of thinking there ….

NPR show on copies

Wisconsin’s NPR show To the Best of Our Knowledge  just broadcast an impressively wide ranging show about copies and copying including discussions with a variety of people about  architectural mimicry in China; identical twins; apocalypse memes; biotech dilemmas … and my own take on the topic.  My own thoughts turn increasingly to the issue of 3-D printers, which especially when linked to a 3D scanner, really radicalize what kinds of objects ordinary people can now copy in their home.  With nanotechnology slowly moving from hypothesis to reality, and the possibility of making copies that are accurate at the atomic level, the kinds of confusion of original and copy that we see happening today are going to increase exponentially.  Which again raises the question: why do we copy? What do we really want? And how does copying fit or not fit into the broader political-economic framework that we live in?

On the Copies in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy

A number of people have asked me what I thought of Abbas Kiarostami’s new film Certified Copy, which is about an English writer, James Miller, who’s just published a book arguing that the distinction between original and copy is meaningless, and his meeting with a charming art dealer, identified only as “Elle”, who may or may not be his wife, in Tuscany during a book tour.  The movie is set up so didactically – it more or less begins with a ten minute lecture setting out the thesis of the writer’s book – that one is forced to assume that what follows – a more or less standard European art movie scene of romantic hijinx played out in a picturesque location – is also about copying.  I felt fairly indifferent to the movie while watching it, but it’s growing on me as I think about it.  I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing.

If the movie is indeed a copy of a generic European art house movie narrative, then it’s such a correct copy that it’s hard to see where the intervention, or the creativity in the act of making the copy is.  True, Duchamp’s “Fontaine” is also just another urinal, but it achieved it’s power through the shock of being relocated from the bathroom to the art  gallery.  But isn’t this kind of film and role exactly what we expect of Juliet Binoche (playing “Elle”), if not Kiarostami himself?

Perhaps something is lost in translation.   Certainly the film abounds with translation problems: the shifts from English to Italian to French; between lovers and genders; between generations; between those with traditional commitments and those who believe themselves without them.  In every case, something like a copy appears when there’s an expectation as to how things are supposed to be, an expectation which is let down.  Which incidentally describes prevalent critical reaction to the film.

Is anything gained in translation too?  An “Iranian” director making a “European” art house film?  Certainly it’d be worth looking at the way in which non European film-makers are invited to participate in art house cinema only through adopting and reiterating certain kinds of cinematic discourse. But that’s old news at this point, isn’t it? A dysfunctional couple forced to roleplay traditional gender and marital parts in order to revive their relationship? Ditto.  Perhaps translation is the wrong word for what’s happening.

Most reviewers of the film feel compelled to make a decision about who the two main characters in the film are, while the film itself goes to great lengths to resist this.  In fact, the weakness of the film, if it is one, consists in the apparently artificial lengths that Kiarostami is compelled to go to in order to maintain the ambiguity about whether or not Elle and Miller are a long time married couple now meeting up again and acting as if they don’t know each other, or a couple meeting for the first time who find themselves playing the roles of people in a long term relationship.  In other words, a drama of original and copy.

Is the point then that the same claim that Miller makes in his book turns out to be true in real life, that the distinction between original and copy is not so important and that sometimes the copy may be more relevant or powerful than the original?  Just in terms of the narrative arc of the movie this doesn’t sound entirely right.  The movie ends with Elle remembering a moment of happiness and satisfaction on her wedding night, while Miller looks at himself in the bathroom mirror and has a moment presumably of self recognition, marked by the somewhat crude device of the church bells outside ringing.  Is the point then conversely that behind the superficial play of original and copy there is the mark of an original trauma which somehow is revealed by the tracking and repeating of symptoms, which are in a sense copies that disavow the original that is in fact their source.  That would explain the unpleasantly uptight and reactive character of Miller, and equally clueless sentimentality of Elle.

But that also sounds too crude.  After all, there’s no clear explanation or resolution given at the end of the movie.  Even the mirror that one assumes Miller is looking into is not actually seen on screen.  It’s a camera that the actor faces onto, imitating the expression he might have in front of a mirror.  A camera is not exactly a mirror.  So the movie floats in a strange way towards recent films such as Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, or Lars von Trier’s Dogville, where the scaffolding of the film set is itself visible and constitutive of what goes on in the film.  Kiarostami goes a step further than Kaufman or von Trier by exposing the “Real” of the Tuscan town in the movie as a kind of mimetic installation as much as the warehouses and stages of those other films.  The point is driven home by the presentation of the Tuscan towns as tourist destinations, frozen in some image of their own past and cultural heritage, yet still full of people finally just trying to live their lives.

What is disturbing or confusing or even disappointing in the film is the lack of clear directions as to what we are to do with this mimetic impasse.  Is it an invitation to the unleashing of drives as in von Trier’s movies? Or to the multiple personalities or aphasiacs that populate Kaufman’s films?  Perhaps there’s a simpler response: that one of the core principles animating mimetic phenomena is erotic.  Put crudely, the film tracks an amorous encounter through various stages of deflection and displacement to the very moment where the two lovers are finally in a hotel room, about to make love.  Or not.  In other words, copying in the movie is mostly an expression of erotic ambivalence.  The young couples who are getting married in the church are disavowed by Miller because of their supposed naivete about what the future actually holds in store for them, but what’s provocative mimetically of course is that the religious and state rituals around marriage structure the obscenity of sexual reproduction.  The couples are not so much naïve as committed to the mimetic rites that they are going through.  Miller is incapable of this commitment.  As my colleague Ian Carr-Harris said to me in a recent discussion, he’s “afraid of originals”!  And therefore obfuscates the difference between original and copy in his work.

Am I guilty of the same kind of obfuscation?  For me, an original is a kind of copy, since there is no original without an act of labeling or designation that says “this is an original” (at the same time obscuring the processes of imitation and appropriation that make up an object).  But both originals and copies can expose one to the nonconceptual Real, and it’s this exposure to the Real that we are afraid of.  Certified Copy is a film about this fear, about the ways in which cinema can or can’t address it, and in particular about the way Kiarostami thinks it can be addressed, in 2011, in a film funded by European backers.

Arthur Russell and Buddhism

I’m just finishing Tim Lawrence’s excellent biography of Arthur Russell, Hold On To Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992. In some ways, New York in the 1970s is starting to be very well charted territory, but the complicated web of connections between different scenes which is described in this book is still news, and Lawrence draws out these connections with the same loving detail he brought to his first book, Love Saves The Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. The book nicely complements the recent compilation of Russell protégé Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra – a group that variously featured Kathy Acker on vocals, Laurie Anderson, Rhys Chatham and many others. I think Lawrence underplays the breadth of the “mutant disco” scene – there’s no mention of Ze Records, the Bush Tetras, Arto Lindsay’s various dance projects – but maybe Russell’s path somehow didn’t intersect with “punk funk” or the other post-new wave styles that were floating around when I first visited New York in the early 1980s.

One of the surprises the book contains is that Russell was a committed Buddhist.  Russell was turned on to Buddhism in San Francisco in the early 1970s when he was involved with a Theosophical sounding commune called Kailas Shugendo, and then with a Japanese Shingon priest Yuko Nonomura (Shingon being an esoteric form of Japanese Buddhism with similarities to Tibetan Vajrayana).  After that he appears to have made his own way, supported by friendships with Buddhists such as Allen Ginsberg, who Russell performed with and lived in the same building as for decades.  He was either incapable of orthodoxy or uninterested in it: his Buddhism more like the “spontaneous Beat zen” of the early Beats which, as Hakim Bey argues, was arguably more true to the core of Buddhist thought and practice than the more orthodox and technically authentic versions of Asian religious traditions which dominate in Europe and the Americas today.

It’s still kind of shocking to read that Russell’s early disco masterpiece “Is It All Over My Face?” was produced according to Buddhist principles:

“… Arthur planned to record a song that bubbled with the earthy, collective spontaneity of the dance floor …. In order to realize this goal, Arthur decided to run the recording sessions as a live mix and knowingly fell back on the philosophy of Chögyam Trungpa and Ginsberg, who argued for the poetic value of unmediated inspiration and lived according to the maxim “First thought best thought.””

Recording sessions took place on a full moon, because that “is a time of celestial energy, productivity, and ritual.” Definitely a key event in a generally still unwritten history of queer post-hippie spiritual practice.  And although the goal of such recording sessions was generally to produce a capitalist commodity, i.e. a 12 inch single, the situation is more interesting than that kind of crude summary. For one thing, Russell was notorious for playing with time in the studio and most of the recordings he made were never finished, let alone released. As with Jack Smith’s endlessly respliced movies, Russell made rhizomes of sound that seem to have been an end in themselves. For another, the tapes produced in these recording sessions were often played at places like Nicky Siano’s Gallery or the Paradise Garage without ever being officially released, in the same way that Jamaican dub plates allowed for dancehall transmissions that would often simultaneously be kept a secret by not being labelled and packaged for the marketplace.

When you start to look, a lot of Russell’s songs have obviously Buddhist lyrics. The pre-François K version of “Go Bang”  starts with the lyric “Thank you for asking me questions/you showed us the face of delusion/ to uproot the cause of confusion”. While the famous chorus line “I wanna see all my friends at once/I’d do anything to get a chance to go bang, I wanna go bang” is usually interpreted as celebrating an orgiastic dancehall sexuality, it could just as easily be talking about the Bodhisattva’s vow to bring all sentient beings together to perfect enlightenment.  Nor is there necessarily a contradiction between the erotic and Buddhist meanings of the lyric since in Tantric Buddhism, bliss is an aspect of the realization of  emptiness or sunyata.  Russell’s dance music has a peculiar suppleness and flexibility, it feels truly at ease and open, always morphing in unexpected and delightful ways – listen to “Let’s Go Swimming” some time – and that is how the greatest Buddhist teachers I’ve met have felt too.

What could, would or should a Buddhist music sound like?  Maybe the question is meaningless: a number of  Buddhist artists who I’ve talked to about the relationship between their work and their Buddhist practice have bluntly denied any connection between the two, even when their music or paintings or poetry are full of explicit references to Buddhist ideas.  Generally such people embrace Buddhism as a traditional practice that is self-sufficient and separate from other aspects of their “modern” lives.  “Buddhist music” then would be something that sounds like music associated with a particular Buddhist tradition or culture. But that then suggests that Buddhist culture is somehow frozen within a particular set of historical forms which it must dutifully repeat in order to appear authentic.

There have been a number of interesting books about Buddhism and the poetic avant-gardes, but Buddhism and contemporary music has barely been thought about.  Maybe it’s because John Cage captured the brand of “Buddhist composer” so early on, although as La Monte Young once noted, “John Cage dipped into the well, but how deep did he dip?”  I love Cage, and I happen to think that we have yet to find out how deep he dipped, but it’s true that his version of Buddhist music is just one version, with very particular musical decisions built around a particular set of East Asian Buddhist histories.  Philip Glass seems to me a great Buddhist in terms of his support of a community of musicians (including Russell), but his music comes from other places.  Although she denied it when I asked her about it, Eliane Radigue’s drones, with their emphasis on slow transformation of tonal combinations feels very meditative, and her collaboration with Robert Ashley on the life of Milarepa is stunning,  reading the Tibetan saint as an old-timer in a American western. Ashley himself references Buddhism often, and his use of vernacular conversational lyrics in records like Private Lives and Automatic Writing (two of my favorite records ever ever) has an openness and spontaneity whose sources are surely  in Cage, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and other practitioners of Buddhist inflected “spontaneous bop poetics.”

But Russell doesn’t really sound like any of these composers with the possible exception of Ashley.  Maybe Ginsberg’s musical adventures such as First Blues, which Russell actually plays on, were important.  Don Cherry was making a similarly eclectic Buddhist music throughout the 1970s, blending rock, and electric African sounds with Tibetan Buddhist chanting on records like Brown Rice and Relativity Suite.  While Russell is fearless in moving between genres, he also displays a kind of warped respect for the fragile construction of those genres – which is why I was able to hear “Go Bang” for the first time in a Soho London nightclub full of strictly old school funk freaks. I think Lawrence does a great job of showing how an ethics of openness and spontaneity are expressed in Russell’s music, and in the ways that he imagined his music being used socially, to break down barriers between scenes, styles and so on.   As with John Giorno’s poetry, there’s a non-coercive opening up of mental and physical spaces through montage and repetition.  You don’t need to know that “this is Buddhist music” because that labeling  would reify what’s going on and turn it into a mere idea of Buddhism.   The “logic of sense” is loosened up in a melodic and rhythmically disciplined way — and that’s how the joys of the dancehall and the recognition of emptiness resonate.

Plagiarism is a Philosophical Issue: A Response to Stanley Fish

There have been a number of pieces around issues of plagiarism and copyright in the New York Times recently.  I could write a whole blog that did nothing but catalog these articles: the piece describing college student skepticism regarding the idea of plagiarism, another describing the travails of a woman hired by BMI, one of the largest performing rights organizations in the world, as she moves from town to town, trying to persuade restaurant and club owners to pay royalties for their use of copyrighted music; a third on the impact of copyright law on the fashion industry.  And then there’s literary/legal scholar Stanley Fish’s “Plagiarism is Not a Big Moral Deal”, which makes the argument that plagiarism is not a moral or philosophical issue but simply one of professional decorum. The argument restates Fish’s broader thesis that there are no pre-existing meanings, only interpretive communities that make fragile but decisive agreements about meaning.  Thus:

“ … in order to have a basis, plagiarism would have to stand on some philosophical ground. But the ground plagiarism stands on is more mundane and firm; it is the ground of disciplinary practices and of the histories that have conferred on those practices a strong, even undoubted (though revisable)  sense of what kind of work  can be appropriately done and what kind of behavior cannot be tolerated. If it is wrong to plagiarize in some context of practice, it is not because the idea of originality has been affirmed by deep philosophical reasoning, but because the ensemble of activities that take place in the practice would be unintelligible  if  the possibility of being original  were not presupposed.”

The obvious rejoinder to Fish’s essay (and Fish’s position in general) is that if plagiarism is not a moral problem, then surely one should campaign for  reform of laws and rules governing plagiarism.  After all, students can be thrown out of college, employees can be fired, artists and writers fined large sums of money if they are found guilty of plagiarism in various disciplinary contexts.  There’s no indication in the essay that Fish believes in such reform.  If one did argue for legal reform, the particular intellectual frameworks that support the current disciplinary practices and interpretive communities  would reveal themselves and plagiarism would quickly become a philosophical issue…

Or a theoretical one, at any rate.  After all, the main “philosophical” argument made in favor of intellectual property is that it’s natural that human beings claim their thoughts as their property, even when it’s equally evident  that no one can own language and that every thought has its basis in a chain of signs, events, influences which do not belong to the thinker.  The presupposition of originality that Fish speaks of is ideological: it supports the interests of a particular economic and political framework or, if you like, practice. It is necessary in order to render that practice intelligible … but at what cost? And for who’s benefit?

That discussion of plagiarism in mainstream media tends to be ideological is beyond doubt.  The first sentence of “The Music Copyright Enforcers” lets you know what is to follow: “Few things can make Devon Baker cry”.  Baker, the BMI representative is a caring, feeling individual, while those who resist paying fees to BMI are a gang of subhuman beasts who curse and threaten violence at every turn.  At no point is the idea of the public domain or fair use mentioned in the article, even though these concepts are an integral part of intellectual property law today.  Following Fish, we might argue that it’s necessary, or valid, to present copyright violators as subhuman beasts because otherwise the practice of intellectual property law would become unintelligible.  That argument has obvious weaknesses though. It ignores the power relations that allow certain parties (for example corporations that benefit from aggressive enforcement of intellectual property law) to dominate discussions of what is intelligible and what is not, and who gets to practice what. Even so, practices of imitation, labeled as plagiarism or not, continue, because in them the life of the people manifests in a somewhat autonomous way.

Unlike Fish, I do believe that there’s a need to align “disciplinary practices” such as intellectual property law with philosophical principles.  I don’t claim that this is easy to do well. But the law as it stands is already taking explicitly philosophical positions and it always has been, all the way back to the Statute of Anne with its direct basis in Lockean possessive individualism.  In In Praise of Copying, I connect plagiarism to the problem of deception since what is objectionable in plagiarism is not the borrowing of someone else’s work, but the lack of attribution.  But that’s one of the main objections to copying in general: that something is presented as something else, and that we are deceived when we mistake the copy for the original.  This was Plato’s objection to mimesis and the poets in the Republic. The main challenge to the perfect operation of reason and self-knowledge according to Kant in Critique of Pure Reason is also deception.   So plagiarism is intimately connected to very basic issues that the western philosophical tradition has struggled with since the beginning.

In his second piece on plagiarism, written in response to the many comments on the first piece,  Fish restates his objection to philosophical examinations of plagiarism:

“I don’t say, as several posters charge, that rules against plagiarism are called into question by the deconstruction (in some quarters) of the idea of originality. I introduce those arguments only in order to assert their irrelevance to any enterprise founded on the presumption of originality as both a possibility and a value. A theoretical debunking of a concept has no effect on a practice whose very shape depends on that concept’s being firmly in place.”

But the point of a theoretical debunking is to make a concept that appears to be “firmly in place” less so. And if the “very shape” of a particular practice “depends on that concept’s being firmly in place”, dislodging it will at least potentially lead to a change of practice.  It’s worth a shot, anyway.

Fish’s rethinking of the concept of practice is key to understanding his work.  He develops his ideas on this topic most fully in Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (1989). A lot of what seems paradoxical in these New York Times op ed pieces has to do with the very specific meaning that Fish assigns to words like morality, philosophy, theory and practice.  At the same time, as Alan Jacobs notes in his excellent review of that book, there’s something wrong with how Fish thinks about practice.   Everything is practice – fine. The world is a multiplicity of unstable but significant constellations of practice and practices — sure. With plagiarism, we’re talking about a number of different practices, even when we focus on the problem of student plagiarism in the university, as Susan Blum notes in her new book on the topic.

The internet for example has changed the practice of teaching and learning in the university.  We can rigidly stick to a particular framing of education and the concepts that enable it, such as plagiarism, originality etc., but when that framing is undermined by the practice of consulting iPhones in the classroom, we have the option of abandoning or at least revising our values and the concepts which inform our practices.  This might involve teaching methodology, practices of citation more, as Fish notes in his second column. But also a greater acceptance of competent but unattributed use of other people’s work – since if the goal is learning, the intrusion of the internet into the university classroom is, amongst other things, the intrusion of a different practice of learning. That practice comes more naturally to many students today than the practices of citation that governed the Gutenberg/book era university.  So: there’s a conflict of practices.  Theory has a role in illuminating and resolving that conflict.

Mimesis is a concept that Fish doesn’t talk about much in his work, even though it’s pervasively present.  He loves to use examples from sports to illustrate his arguments about practice.  Practice is mimetic because it’s about the repetition of a form shaped by rules.  Sports are an intensely mimetic activity, as we know from reading the two great theorists of play, Huizinga and Caillois. But sports are not a great model for thinking more broadly about practice since the explicit agreements about rules that make them possible don’t exist to the same degree in other aspects of the human world, or the natural world.  Practice – and mimesis – are much more chaotic outside of the realm of sports, and it requires something like Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory to track the way a practice evolves.  Or Mahayana Buddhism, another antifoundationalist practice – but I won’t go into that right now.

The problem of practice is a profound one.  It’s not a coincidence that many of the debates around the nature of practice today concern copying.  This is because a very particular way of thinking about copying dominates our legal, economic, political and aesthetic systems — yet the practices of everyday life, the various mimetic modes by which Hardt and Negri’s multitude are constituted, continually exceed those systems.  That surplus is reappropriated through intellectual property law and various kinds of taboos on mimetic activity, generating official or disciplinary practices. Yet the practices of the multitude always reappear again, in one form or another …