Tag Archives: postaweek2011

Banksy and the persistence of postmodernism

A review of Exit Through the Gift Shop (with some kicks at Richard Dawkins’ deserving balls along the way)

Watching Exit over the holiday was more or less my introduction to Banksy and his art. The film is a glinting glass onion of layered ironies; the scene it sketches, the stories it tells, and the style with which it is executed all declare that the reports of postmodernism’s death are greatly exaggerated.

First, a backgrounder on these reports (to which a still-going concern like the editors of Postmodern Culture and other scholars of postmodernism might rightly object). It was maybe the Sokal affair that rang the first death knell of postmodernism, virtually in the teeth of its pop-culture arrival: in Simpsons references, raves, Tarantino movies, Kathy Acker’s last works, and so on. The short version is that one Dr Sokal submitted a hoax “postmodernist” paper to a prominent refereed journal, which accepted it for publication. Designed to lampoon the perceived excesses and inutility of postmodern theory, the affair ended up making peer review look bad as well. For some reason, Richard Dawkins joined the ensuing pile-on; he published an unprovoked and ill-informed rant against postmodernism as a review of Sokal’s work in 1998. It might have been suitably lost to public memory, except that he exhumed this baffling bit of “blind and dumb criticism” to post it online in 2007, at which time it mostly just made Dawkins seem like the drunk and belligerent crasher of a party that most people had already left. (It’s also rather unseemly for a knighted scientist to pick a turf war with a Humanities specialization; aren’t the Humanities being bullied enough by the government of the 1%, without a fellow scholar bustling in for a cheap kick to the ribs while they’re down?) At a conference I attended, around 2003, my alma mater’s own expert on postmodernism remarked that it seemed just as the idea was getting some public traction, everybody started talking about globalization instead. Most recently, the Guardian ran a column last year about how postmodernism was a premillennial flash in the pop-culture pan, and had been replaced – not by globalization this time – but by the Internet: “Postmodernism was, crucially, a pre-digital phenomenon. In retrospect, all the things that seemed so exciting to its adherents – the giddy excess of information, the flattening of old hierarchies, the blending of signs with the body – have been made real by the internet.”

Banksy, Commissioned mural. New York, 2008. Photo CC-licensed from SteveR-.

Enter Exit, and Banksy’s work more broadly: playful with pastiche and parody, replete with détourned ready-mades and quoted references, at once street-wise and Sotheby’s-worthy, distinctly stylized in its stark imagery and sardonic tone, sublimely ambiguous in its uncertain attribution, its oscillation between presence and disappearance. It’s consistently preoccupied with the problematic status of art as commodity, and placed to interrogate the roles of artist and audience, and the social function of art itself, everywhere it appears. And it’s all wickedly, infinitely ironic. Banksy’s aesthetic is almost textbook postmodernism – given the logic of his work, it might not be a stretch to suggest his whole oeuvre represents a postmodern parody of postmodernism itself.

Banksy, Original Thought. New York, 2010.

I did say “almost.” How Banksy’s work departs from textbook postmodernism is in its plain-spoken populism and its open public access. The jokes are almost never in-jokes, the ironies are immediately grasped, the images are iconic, the themes and statements are clearly political – addressing controverial issues and matters of public interest – and the language is both direct and fiercely witty. Dawkins would be hard pressed to find in Banksy’s version of postmodernism the perceived obscurity, uselessness, and social detachment at which his “blind and dumb” criticism takes such gender-coded and ambiently xenophobic umbrage. (The artist himself might object to having his work described as “postmodernist.” But it’s not the artist’s job to interpret one’s own work for the public. That’s tacky.)

And yet at the same time, Dawkins would also look simply ludicrous to denounce Banksy for postmodernism’s perceived sins of fakery and dissimulation – er, better make that more ludicrous than he already looks for missing entirely the meaning and materiality of fakery and dissimulation for the culture of late capital. (Okay, that’s enough about Sir Dick; his problem is more with postmodernist scholarship, not art.) As with quintessentially postmodern productions like Videodrome, Philip K. Dick stories, and the surgical body art of Orlan and Nina Arsenault, Banksy’s work messes specifically with perceptions and assumptions about what’s real or authentic, and what isn’t, in its use of trompe l’oeil tactics and, moreover, in the uncertainty his work leaves in its wake: “is it a Banksy?”

its neither real or a hoax. its a banksy
– this guy I know

What the film does, then, is amplify this almost-textbook postmodern aesthetic – it creates more ambiguity and play in the very gesture of posing and purporting to answer questions. It turns the documentary form on itself and so turns the screw, to collapse the form’s defining premise in truth-value and the real into a hyperreal hall of mirrors, a procession of footage, interviews, narration, and montage that leave it impossible to distinguish what is simulation and what is too weird to make up.

Exit is a documentary about a would-be documentarist documenting an eminently postmodern scene of cultural production. Compounding this recursive premise is the story it tells, which fast becomes either stranger than fiction or a fantastic farce. Or both. The most absorbing facet of the film is how it both supports and subverts the post-Romantic ideology of artistic authenticity and originality.

In the first place, the proffered genealogy of “street art” is highly selective and dehistoricized, a speciously sketched “birth of a movement” that, as public art of social revolt, ultimately differs more in degree than in kind from its venerable predecessors in wildstyle graffiti, Dada, and Don Juan.

Moreover, the basis of Banksy’s and Fairey’s work in ready-mades and various types of appropriation, of devices and spaces as well as images, renders their protests over Guetta’s perceived artistic inauthenticity at once undeservingly harsh, more paradoxically post-Romantic than postmodern, and absurdly ironic. The documentary narrative, to its credit, situates Guetta in the tradition of Duchamps, Warhol, Koons, Kostabi, and Hirst. This is also equally the tradition to which Banksy belongs (at least as much as he belongs to that of Bronx wildstyle and Basquiat), however much he and Fairey disavow it, however truly or feignedly Banksy appears discomfited by critical and commercial success in the high art world of millionaires’ trophy cases.

Ultimately, though, the film succeeds not despite but because of these ambiguities. It is a film thoroughly consistent with Banksy’s paint and sculptural work, a varition on its major themes (the critique of the art commodity, the interrogation of the author function and its inordinate cultural capital), a bracing rejuvenation of the postmodern sublime, and a persuasive realization of postmodernism’s political potential.

How it realizes this potential is perhaps best illustrated in the Disneyland sequence.

The Thunder Mountain Gitmo detainee installation is pointedly political in its imagery, placement, and public visibility; however the viewer interprets it must deal with the disconcerting juxtaposition of leisure capital and neo-imperial torture.

Accordingly, the piece demonstrates the real limits on and risks to genuine freedom of radical expression, not just in its reference points but in its placement and in the documentation that shows the stick it throws in the spokes of an average day at the “happiest place on Earth.” The film’s use of the piece footage is itself as astonishing and political as the piece itself, given Disney’s notoriously tight and litigiously guarded control over its public image (discussed in another fine documentary, The Mickey Mouse Monopoly). The very use of this footage in the film tests credibility, as a provocation to the corporation that has become emblematic of copyright extremism and hypersensitive perception management.

Exit‘s Disney footage also engages a postmodern politics of historical memory – it captures and commemorates a moment of daring guerilla art that tests believability, but for its corroboration by archival period reports in news media. If “the events of 11 September signalled the death of postmodernism,” as the Guardian has it, this piece and its documentation signal postmodernism’s return with a vengeance, expressed with reference to September 11 itself (the catalyst for those Guantanamo detainments).

The copyright and legal questions prompted by this and related scenes of subversive appropriation (like the anecdote about the counterfeit pounds) put the film’s ambiguities and ironies to perhaps their toughest test. After months of speculation and dispute over the film’s veracity (including the intriguing suggestion that the film’s main subject, the French documentarist Guetta, was played by Banksy himself), reports emerged a year ago that Guetta was being sued for copyright infringement. A legal proceeding like this still doesn’t necessarily prove anything about Guetta or the film, but it does provide some compelling evidence towards resolving the film’s ambiguities (and spoiling some of its fun, as copyright law all too regularly does). A ruse that involves sworn oaths and lawyers’ fees seems a colossal project for even an artist of considerable patience, tenacity, and resources like Banksy.

In any case, Exit is perhaps best understood paradoxically, as the cinematic equivalent of Banksy’s counterfeit Princess Di pound note: turns out you can spend it anyway. That’s the cultural logic of late capitalism at work.

Works Cited
Banksy. Banksy.co.uk.
Bonner, Sean. “Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash sued for copyright infringement over Run DMC image.” BoingBoing 26 Jan. 2011.
Dawkins, Richard. “Postmodernism disrobed.” Richard Dawkins Foundation, 31 Mar. 2007.
Exit Through the Gift Shop. Dir. Banksy. Paranoid Pictures, 2010.
Kunzru, Hari. “Postmodernism: From the cutting edge to the museum.” The Guardian 15 Sept. 2011.

One small step towards the 5kmph office

Solvitur ambulando.

A couple of years ago, I saw a news item on a sports-health expert who had turned an office (it was probably in California) into a workout workstation, by replacing the workers’ chairs with treadmills. “I spend my workday at 5 kilometres an hour,” the expert said. Since then, the 5kmph office has become a science fiction dream of Yours Truly, as someone who works at home.

Happily, the dream is gradually becoming a reality (thanks to some overextended credit). I’ve seen a few different adaptations of this general idea; the prototype I’m working on is, so far, relatively simple (although admittedly resource-intensive).


This prototype suspends an iPad in a portfolio case over the treadmill console, on which sits the wireless keyboard.


I’m actually writing this post while walking right now, as an experiment. Two details will need fine-tuning. First, the keyboard is not in an ergonomically correct position: I need to bend my wrists up as I type, and that’s a recipe for RSI; I also have to lean slightly forward, a recipe for back and posture problems. Second, because the iPad is suspended, it sways whenever I use the touchscreen controls. Fine-tuning this prototype, then, might begin by determining what kind of work can sustainably be done while walking. Maybe reading an e-book or scanning e-mail will better suit the walk-stationary workstation.

Deck the blog

This is more or less all we’ve been watching this week so I thought I’d deck the blog with it.

The Cadger Dubstep Christmas House – First Of The Year (Equinox) by Skrillex

In passing, I will note the fair use angle: Over a million views on Youtube, likely no public performance rights, yet evidence of musician endorsement, at this story about the spectacle (which may or may not be the creator’s own story):

Have yourself a dubsteppy holiday.

Creative versus critical: a disorder of discourse

The current University Affairs has a thought-provoking article about the adoption of creative writing modes in Humanities scholarship, the possibilities they afford research, and the different perceptions and receptions of this practice.

A piece of lyric scholarship might juxtapose excerpts from other scholarly works without accompanying exhaustive analysis. It might borrow elements of poetry, such as rhythm, image and metaphor – the very elements scholarship usually studies rather than employs.

I’m all for experimenting with methodology, and I think this development of “lyric scholarship” is intriguing and has productive potential. But I also take issue with the notion that is implied in the article, which is that traditional scholarship is not, itself, a mode of creative writing.

I’m not suggesting that research publications necessarily deserve attention for prose style – tropes, rhythm, rhyme, allusions, etc. – although there are certainly stellar stylists doing scholarly work (as the article showcases; and an earlier precedent would be Marshall McLuhan’s work, representative of “lyric scholarship” in its reliance on aphorism and allusion). Then again, there are as many if not more examples of the contrary, too: the irremediably dull, sloppily written, and barely proofread pieces, like those criticized in Orwell’s “Politics and the English language” – the kind of stuff that feeds popular anti-intellectualism. What I’m suggesting is that well-written scholarship embodies attentive use of language, extensive research, and thoughtful argument, and that this intellectual labour is worth considering in terms of creativity.

To suggest this is also to deliberately try to blur the distinctions institutionalized between creative work, traditionally conceived as a “primary” literature, and critical work as as a “secondary” literature. Michael Foucault identifies this hierarchical distinction as one important “order of discourse” in the organization of modern western knowledge and culture.

Writing instruments

There are worthwhile reasons for challenging this distinction. Left unproblematized, the distinction denies creative work any critical agency, which it wields in force, of course. Consider the credit given Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for catalyzing the Civil War. Or – on the topic of this very post – consider this passage from Ronald Wright’s novel A Scientific Romance – it’s one of the finest (and funniest) critical assessments of Theory that I’ve yet read:

The French themselves realize that Parisian theory is an art form; the Americans, poor lambs, take it seriously. (9)

Conversely, the distinction denies criticism is creative labour and positions it as a kind of parasite discourse, thus perpetuating the illusion that “creative” work is generated ex nihilo, an illusion that mostly serves the increasingly oppressive copyright regime that relies on ideologies of originality and creativity to protect its interests.

And there are other reasons to critique this order of discourse that relate to copyright. While it is more standard for literary journals to leave copyright with creative authors, it is fairly standard for academic journals to request scholarly authors to surrender copyright. Admittedly, there are very different labour economies in which these different standards are involved. Creative writers who aren’t also teachers or scholars depend more materially on copyright revenues. Copyright-brokering intermediaries like Access Copyright have not hesitated to exploit these ideological and economic differences, pitting “creators” against “educators” to advance their own bottom-line interests.

Another copyright-related question concerns the extent to which secondary literature can or should quote from primary works under fair dealing “purposes of criticism or research,” or without otherwise infringing copyright. The norms and standards for quoting from other works in scholarship can vary, but tend on the whole to be very conservative, with guidelines for word limits and reliably outrageous fees for licensing poem lines or song lyrics. An interesting development on this front, this week, arose amidst the Supreme Court’s deliberations over five copyright cases now before it. On the question of whether derivative or remix works – not critical works specifically, but secondary works composed of other extant works – can be considered creative in their own right, Michael Geist reports:

One of the most interesting exchanges occurred late in the day, as Chief Justice McLachlin discussed the creative process and noted that works often involve bringing together several other works into a new whole. When counsel responded that this was a compilation, the Chief Justice replied that it might actually be an entirely new work, bringing the issue of remix and transformative works to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The decisions that could come of such discussion may well have substantial implications for how we conceive of the creative, the critical, and the powers served by their hierarchical division.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “The Order of Discourse” (1970). Rpt. in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. 48-78.

Geist, Michael. “The Supreme Court copyright hearings, day two: The fight to rollback fair dealing.” MichaelGeist blog, 8 Dec. 2011.

Lahey, Anita. “Academic Papers Get Poetic.” University Affairs 5 Dec. 2011.

Wright, Ronald. A Scientific Romance. Toronto: Vintage, 1998.

(I’d also like to acknowledge the mentorship of several professors at the University of Guelph for informing my thinking on the critical-creative distinction during my doctoral studies.)

A short review of Scrivener

I test-drove Scrivener during last year’s National Novel Writing Month; discovering this app was the best thing about NaNoWriMo 2010 (which I otherwise torpedoed). Anyway, I liked enough of what I saw in that test drive (on an XP PC) to have forked out since for the total experience (on Mac).

Scrivener is an app for writing long documents, like books. It works like a virtual binder where you keep all the different parts, like chapters, in different folders. But you can also park research documents and media here, and leave notes and tags on anything and everything. You can compare different versions of a draft, take periodic snapshots of the whole thing to revisit prior versions after drastic edits, and keep the big picture always in view. This big-picture background feature of the app’s design is helpful for organizing and re-organizing a big writing project. I sometimes treat essay composition like Lego, moving pieces of analysis around to fit in different places for an argument, and the Scrivener interface has helped me scale up that approach for longer work.

The other functions I find especially useful are screen splitting and quick-reference boxes (which I didn’t discover during the test drive). This screenshot shows the editing screen split horizontally, with two quick-reference boxes that I’ve set to “float” – to stay on top of the editing window.

In the top editing window, I’m compiling the master bibliography from references as I proofread the draft in the bottom window, chapter by chapter. The quick-reference box at left shows a previous Word draft of the bibliography, for copying any existing reference entries from it. The quick-reference box at bottom right is a PDF of the specific “Harvard” citation style guide I’m using; since this format is new to me, I keep it here for consulting as needed. Scrivener has reference and notation affordances if I want them, but just being able to keep all these text windows open and active simultaneously made for pretty light work of the biblio as it was. (I’m also partial to handcrafted bibliography.)

So as far as I’m concerned, Scrivener is already proving itself a good investment. My main reservation is that the actual word-processing functions of the text editor – line spacing, margins, and so on – are weirdly both rudimentary and not entirely intuitive. Scrivener is quite up-front about not being a full-featured word processor like Word, but more of a composition engine. (Like every writing app these days, it has a “distraction-free” mode.) So it relegates a lot of the formatting distractions business to the Export function, which turns all or part of a project into a document an actual word processor can read. But the text editing interface looks and feels enough like Word that I’m maybe having trouble getting past the bias that years of sustained exposure to Microsoft has installed in my head.

I’m not normally about product reviews, but this is an app worth trying out if you’re writing a long document, like a thesis, a novel, a script, or a monograph. Be advised, though, it won’t write the thing for you.

Format-shifting and fidelity: on reading and adaptation

Recent work on adaptation studies (the study of novels turned into movies, and so on) suggests that the ideas the field was founded on – like how “faithful” a movie is to its source – have been superseded, left behind as passé or outmoded. That’s the state of the field according to Linda Hutcheon’s 2006 book A Theory of Adaptation, for instance.

So reading Jamie Lee Wallace’s blog post about how “audio books are not cheating” – to gether with its comments – is a useful reminder that ideas about fidelity to source texts and authenticity in original versions are alive and well in everyday language and popular culture. Wallace is responding to criticisms that reading audio rather than print editions of books is a kind of “cheating.” She makes solid, practical arguments: that the text is the same; that audiobooks make reading possible for otherwise busy schedules; and, most interestingly, that the speaking voice adds presence (what Walter Benjamin calls “aura”) and, sometimes, additional interpretive layers.

My main criticism of the post was going to be that she doesn’t name those who think audiobooks are cheating: who are the “bibliophile purists” she’s responding to?

Then I started reading the comments. The overwhelming majority agree with the blogger (not surprising, since the blog medium itself would filter out a lot of print purists). But the dissenting comments are revealing. (I admit I’m taking some of these out of context.)

“I don’t listen to books — I read them.”
“I’m still just purist enough to be annoyed by eBooks. I still think nothing beats the feeling of actually holding the book and turning the pages.”
“I am totally one of those people who wouldn’t be caught dead with a kindle or any fandangled technology device that’s trying to replace books.”
“I felt dirty for listening to it. I was cheating myself of the experience of cradling a book in my hands and being curled up on the couch with it, but it freed my hands up to do other things..granted there was a few sound effects added into the story, which helped enhance the experience but I don’t think I can really say I’ve “read” that book because I didn’t physically hold it in my hands.”
“I still insist that books are meant to be read. However, I do not consider audio-books or kindle versions to be cheating, with one condition: That the book is intact. That is all summaries, short versions and most obviously movie adaptations are cheating. Mostly because they give everything in bite size, easily digested pieces. The point about a book is to let your imagination go wild and enjoy the imagery the author so carefully created.”

As you can see, the discussion ends up encompassing not just audiobooks but e-books as formats seen to compete with print as more people shift to them. But the shift isn’t one-way, just as adaptation isn’t one-way. (Hutcheon discusses how novels changed over the 20th century to adopt more “cinematic” techniques.) In this light, the last quoted comment’s point about abridgments is well taken – I read unabridged audio editions – but to call a film adaptation “cheating” is to misconstrue what films do (unless you’re talking about films that cheat estates out of their royalties), and yet it’s a widely held opinion. I myself confess to having felt vaguely like I was taking a shortcut by reading Ulysses (unabridged) as an audiobook; but that feeling was easily trumped by a rewarding feeling of accomplishment: I’ve read Ulysses!

Ulysses, by James Joyce

What this blog post suggests for adaptation studies is that it needs to engage critically with the popular romance of fidelity: the fetishes of authenticity and aura that we have inherited from Romantic tradition and that clearly continue to inform popular receptions and understandings of popular culture. (There’s also, among this post’s comments, a recurring sense that new media simply replace old – as I discussed last week.)

But by the same token, “purists” need to ask themselves what purity they are defending, and what that defence serves. Discourses of purity, for instance, are historically bound up in pernicious practices and institutions of race and nation. And defences of purity are one of the main ideological weapons still deployed by multinational media conglomerates to sell the public on increasingly restrictive, censorious, and invasive copyright regulation. In addition, media today are so diverse and multi-directional in their mutual appropriations and cross-pollinations that more pertinent and productive questions beg to be asked than whether audio editions are more real or more readable than paper, or whether Clueless is “faithful” to Austen.

Take Canadian poet Christian Bok’s Xenotext Experiment, for instance: a poem transcribed into a bacterium’s genome, for it to replicate and mutate – literally re-writing Bok’s poem – ad infinitum. What might readers attached to print make of this writing? How does one read the “original” text of a bacterial genome?

New media to old (and vice versa): Om nom nom

The “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as “content.” The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content. The “content” of writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely unaware either of print or of speech. (31)

This passage occurs towards the end of the first chapter of McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) – the chapter that details his most famous statement: “The medium is the message.” In the context of explicating that statement (explication that, for McLuhan, entails both explanation and further encryption), he makes the above comment about content – or message – as both a distraction from the real issue, form – or medium – and, at the same time, a kind of palimpsest or accretion of legacy media.

McLuhan’s statement that “the medium is the message” became famous as a well-worded, soundbite-friendly wake-up call to pay attention not to the “content” of cultural production but to its “form.” In addition, the way it’s worded suggests that form and content, medium and message, can’t be easily distinguished from each other – they are mutually entangled, mutually constitutive of each other. Treating form and content as separate and opposed tends to oversimplify how cultural production works.

Other scholars and artists have made this point too. As Slavoj Žižek puts it: “form is not the neutral frame of particular contents, but the very principle of concretion” (190). “We need to do more than explain what our texts are saying,” says Romantic literary scholar Jerome McGann; “we need to understand what they are doing in saying what they say” (viii). Henry James, in a personal letter from 1912, anticipates McLuhan’s own statement: “Form is substance,” he writes. “Form alone takes, and holds and preserves, substance” (235).

Understanding this admittedly complicated statement of McLuhan’s is a priority for the student who would succeed in literary, cultural, or media studies. Rutgers U English professor Jack Lynch translates the idea into practical terms: “in an English paper, don’t talk about the ‘real world.’ Talk about writing.”

Don’t assume literature is a transparent window that shows us the real world – it’s not something we can reliably look through. Often it’s more like a painting than a window, and instead of looking through it we should learn to look at it.

Or as I’ve put it, in my own discussions with students, the focus in literary study shouldn’t be on what the text says, but rather on how it says it. Write about the literary work not as though it’s a “window” you can ignore while you watch the scene through it, but instead as though it’s a tapestry: a dense network of textual threads that have as much interest – or more – for their intricate interweaving and connections, as for the scene they show.

So one way McLuhan suggests the mutual constitution of medium and message, as well as the socially determining power of the former, is by giving examples of how new media interact with old. To call old media the content of new media is, first, to describe cultural production as more of a practice of adaptation. While we are accustomed to thinking of art-making as “creation” (according to traditions inherited from Romanticism and the reproduced in the rhetoric of the entertainment industry) – as, instead, more accurately understood as a practice of appropriating and transformatively re-working existing texts, genres, and discourses. As McLuhan’s colleague at the U of Toronto also observed, “Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels” (97). Hence, Linda Hutcheon appropriates this very passage from McLuhan as a fitting epigraph for A Theory of Adaptation (2006).

“The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera.” Any text you can think of – and by “text” I mean any kind of cultural production (movie, novel, play, opera, etc.) – is to a greater or lesser extent an adaptation of other existing texts and conventions; nothing gets created out of nothing. Even William Wordsworth, exemplar of Romantic originality, wrote his celebrated poetry by responding to and reworking an extensive repertoire of earlier literature (Hayden 215).

Here’s an example from one of Western culture’s most adapted – and adaptive – playwrights, Shakespeare. His play King Lear – itself an adaptation of a story from medieval Anglo-Celtic folklore – provides source material adapted by Japanese director Akiro Kurasawa, for the feudal epic Ran; or by Margaret Atwood, for the novel Cat’s Eye, whose beleaguered protagonist is named after Lear’s dutiful but persecuted daughter Cordelia. And every production of a dramatic script is is own adaptation. The 1993 staging of Lear by London’s Royal Shakespeare Company presented a postmodern historical pastiche, with characters starting out in period costume but then appearing in progressively more modern garb. By the ultraviolent finale, characters looked like they had arrived onstage from the killing fields of Serbia and Croatia. The production’s ironic costuming and prop strategies thus turned Shakespeare’s play into a critique of ethnic nationalism, and even of modernity’s master narrative, progress.

Now, McLuhan, for his part, isn’t interested so much in adaptations of texts and genres but in adaptations of media, as institutions, to one another. The point of observing that the content of a movie is a play is to illustrate how new media adapt, interact with, and – as he tends to see it – integrate and assimilate older media. The content of commercial radio in its early days was a compbination of drama adapted from stage, journalism adapted from print, performed music, and recorded music. The tiny iPod has eaten the giant jukebox. The tablet screen I’m typing these words on is also the typewriter. The desktop computer is often cited as the apotheosis of media convergence (I’ll get back to the example pictured here).


From left: tube amp, iMac, scanner, printer on speaker

McLuhan, deeply engaged with issues of modernity, tended to see media change and development in terms of epochs and revolutions, as though they succeed one another and make each other obsolete: video killed the radio star. He was surrounded by kids who took to television in a way that books seemed unable to compete with. McLuhan’s comment aout old media as the content of new implies something of this sense of turnover and perennila obsolescence: if a play is the content of a movie, then plays are on the way out. This is patently false, of course, and more recent scholarship has both critiqued this premise of McLuhan’s work (among others) and extended McLuhan’s investigatons of how new and old media interact, suggesting instead that emergent media negotiate and make accommodations with existing media. Bolter and Grusin suggest the term “remediation” to describe how new media both incorporate old media and strive to seem “immediate,” or transparent. Henry Jenkins’ term for the interaction of new and old media, and the consequent blurring of distinctions between producers and consumers, is convergence culture.

To give a few examples: The novel’s conventions changed after the advent of film, plays as easily incorporate video as video adapts drama, and video games and movies are constantly turning into each other. A decade’s worth of file-sharing has also been a decade of growing and sometimes record profits for big entertainment industries. The popularization of computing has entailed not the paperless office or ubiquitous telecommuting, but more paperwork (literally) and new laws to regulate computing while commuting. My family computer functions as a radio, a CD player, a DVD player, a TV, a game console, a photo album, and a film studio. It also, sometimes, serves as a computer. But this is a two-way street: as far as my big old vacuum-tube amplifier is concerned, the computer is just one input channel, no different than the cassette deck also hooked up to it. serves as just one input for my big old vacuum-tube amplifier and vegetable-crate sized speakers.

McLuhan himself later “discovered a better way of saying the medium is the message,” as follows: “Each technology creates a new environment” (qtd. in Gordon 175). He thought this wording better addresses how media strive for “immediacy,” how they become taken for granted, invisible, and natural in their social implementation – and thus how they effect their most profound transformations on subjectivity and society, time and space.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT P, 1999.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Gordon, W. Terrence. Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding. Toronto: Stoddart, 1997.

Hayden, John O. “The Road to Tintern Abbey.” Wordsworth Circle 12.4 (1981): 211-16.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.

James, Henry. Letter to Hugh Walpole (19 May 1912). Rpt. in Novelists on the Novel. Ed. Miriam Allott. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, ca. 1959. 235.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006.

Lynch, Jack. “Writing about the Real World.” Getting an A on an English Paper. Rutgers U, n.d.

McGann, Jerome. Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). Corte Madera: Gingko P, 2003.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Afterword,” in Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917. Ed. Slavoj Žižek. London: Verso, 2002.

Justin Bieber: Copyfighter!

Thanks to Samiah X for Bro-First with Bieber

This pre-Hallowe’en copyright news item had escaped my notice until now, but I’m belatedly pleased to welcome Justin Bieber to the ranks of culture-loving Copyfighters like fellow Canadian music icon Glenn Gould. (Bieber and Gould: now there’s a killer mash-up. Can’t you just hear it? I’m asking you, Gordon Pinsent.) Anyway, what happened was this:

In an interview this morning on Washington DC Hot 99.5 Radio, the Canadian singer affirmed that Internet users should have the right to reuse and remix music on YouTube.

Bieber said Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) should be “put away in cuffs” for sponsoring a bill that would make posting copyrighted clips a felony. […] when asked if he is comfortable with people posting videos singing his songs, he replied, “Are you kidding me? I check YouTube all the time and watch people singing my songs. I think it’s awesome.”

A tip of the hat, Mr. Bieber. Now go for a round of high-fives with your agent and record label reps. I’m sure they feel the same way.

Listen to the radio interview and read the report at TorrentFreak:
Justin Bieber: Sponsor of Anti-Piracy Bill Should Be “Locked Up.”

For more about the bill in question, S.978:

Copyright course review: Bill C-11, fair dealing, and the meaning of research

Bill Burris. "Rutherford South." 2007. CC2.0 licensed.

The weekend before last, I attended an intensive, one-weekend, one-credit course at the U of Alberta’s School of Library and Information Studies. U of A sessional (and retired City Librarian at Vancouver Public Library) Paul Whitney taught the class, and did a fantastic job (he also swore us to the confidentiality of a safe classroom space, which I’ll try to respect in my remarks here). The course was, among other things, a great motivator for reading a number of pivotal texts, especially:

  • Canada’s Copyright Act;
  • its proposed amendment, Bill C-11;
  • the Supreme Court decision in “the CCH case” (which established Canada’s educational fair dealing precedent);
  • and “the Hargreaves report” — an independent report commissioned by the British government, which had no sooner rammed through its Digital Economy Act than Google’s CEOs publicly embarrassed Cameron, by stating Google couldn’t have been launched in the UK under an Act like it.

I won’t lie, reading thirty-page laws in the original legalese was not fun. However, with it completed, reading the Supreme Court decision was totally engrossing: a thoroughly reasoned argument that ended up clarifying a lot about not just the CCH case but the law itself. The Hargreaves report is absorbing, too — in large part as an excellent example of how to talk to a neoliberal government about the public interest (hint: mention “economic growth” a lot).

A good bit of our class time was devoted to a collective close reading of the Copyright Act and Bill C-11. It probably doesn’t sound more fun than reading the laws alone in private, but it was. We got into involved discussions of legal points big and small, and discovered bits of the Act and Bill C-11 I hadn’t been hearing about in the blogosphere or news media. Bits like the Act’s provision to review the legislation in five years. Or like Section 41.21, which (as we discussed at some length) empowers the government to draft supplementary regulations (i.e. ones that don’t require House approval) on how to apply specific sections of the Act — in this case, the controversial section on TPMs. Sec. 41.21 reflects what’s happened in the USA, where fair-use exemptions to the DMCA’s TPM protections have been introduced (e.g. for class screenings in film studies programs). What a section like this does is empower the specific governing body to introduce such an exemption without needing to get amendment-level approval by the legislature. However, while the section leaves some specific exemption options open to the government, it was suggested in the class that any such potential exemptions would likely be very tightly controlled, and applied to very specifically defined types of fair dealing.

Still, reading the bill closely, in the context of related issues — from global IP treaties to local issues like Access Copyright — I found myself coming to a most unexpected breakthrough, of sorts: a greater appreciation for Bill C-11. I won’t go so far as to give C-11 a glowing endorsement or anything, but the course helped to put the bill’s TPM protections into perspective, offering some “little glimmers of hope,” as the instructor put it, to offset the gloom of the TPM provisions. The course offered this and other reminders that C-11, in fact, represents one of the most progressive pieces of copyright legislation introduced in the modern developed world; as the instructor put it, C-11 is

the only western legislation making provisions for the everyday, non-infringing copying practices of users.

These provisions may not go quite as far as the extensive and flexible protections afforded Americans under their fair use law, but neither is C-11 all that far behind — fair use being one specific point of US law that I wouldn’t mind seeing Canada try to emulate. (That doesn’t go for the rest of US law, naturally. I still don’t want Canada to become a prison- and petrothug-based economy. And new IP legislation emerging in the USA — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the Commercial Felony Streaming Act — doesn’t look anything but draconian either — SOPA stands to interfere with the very structure of the Internet.)

As Paul mentioned more than once, like a mantra: “copyright legislation is usually best on the day it’s introduced.” By which he meant that by the time a bill like this becomes law, the lobbyists and special interests have got their MP representatives to gut it of its progressive, public-interest provisions. So there is cause to receive the Heritage Minister’s vow to pass the bill unchanged by Christmas 2011 as a promise as well as a threat; if he’s not fielding any further public consultations, the same better go for private ones too.

The “glimmers of hope” mentioned here don’t change the basic and urgent criticism that the TPM or “digital lock” provisions go further than necessary to observe Canada’s WIPO obligations, and too far in compromising the otherwise excellent fair dealing provisions (as many more influential voices than mine have pointed out). But these glimmers of hope do augment my perspective on how the digital locks provisions may or may not be enforced, and whether or not these provisions will in practice trump educational fair dealing — given how robustly fair dealing has already been enshrined by the CCH decision. What concerns me, amid the dim light of such glimmers, is the possibility that supplementary regulations would be restricted more to educators than made available to the general public. If so, such regulations could widen rather than close the gap of access, license, and therefore of power between educators and everyday users. The uncertain and uneven implications of the TPM protections in C-11 thus demand (in my admittedly limited understanding) not a closing of the proverbial ivory tower’s gates to enjoy in private any supplementarily permitted liberties, but rather a renewed commitment to pursue and expand the public interest mandate of public education in Canada. Perhaps fostering more critical cultural legal studies, of the kind advanced by Humanities and legal scholars like Rosemary Coombe and Paul Saint-Amour, would be a start:

Coombe, in her powerful study The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law (1998), calls for a new interdisciplinary approach she calls a “Critical Cultural Legal Studies”: a synthesis that brings the socially, politically, and ethically contextualizing energies of cultural studies to bear on legal discourse, while at the same time insisting on both the inescapably political and contingent nature of the law […] and legal theory’s responsibility to the actual social relations and lifeworlds of those whom the law governs. (Saint-Amour 19)

As Saint-Amour notes, “intellectual property law has a low tolerance for practices that criticize or parody its basic tenets,” but it is perhaps in such practices that the most effective methods for Critical Cultural Legal Studies might obtain: “practices it [copyright law] recodes, belittles, and criminalizes as piracy and infringement” (19). Whether in a more traditionally scholarly guise, or in more radical and populist interventions (think of Negativland, the KLF), the pursuit and promotion of Critical Cultural Legal Studies might represent a productive start towards increasing the awareness of students and the public about how profoundly copyright (a formerly very specialized law) stands to affect the everyday life of ubiquitous computing (which means ubiquitous copying) in the twenty-first century. If the Supreme Court’s CCH decision clearly gives research a “large and liberal” interpretation, this interpretation should be understood as not just a protection afforded educational institutions, but one available to any and all Canadian citizens involved in “private study or research.”

What, then, does a liberal — and what might a radical — interpretation of research mean?

Works Cited

Saint-Amour, Paul K. The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003.

Whitney, Paul. Copyright Workshop for Information Professionals [one-credit course]. School of Library and Information Studies, U of Alberta, 22-24 Oct. 2011.

We’re all waiting

"We're all waiting." Ink and crayon, ca. 1994.

One variation in a series I composed as an art-minor undergraduate. Still kinda like it. Still not sure what we’re all waiting for.