Here is an excerpt from a 1995 essay by the author and theorist Kathy Acker. Her thoughts on the way the Internet could potentially change the role of writing and copyright in society are certainly interesting in view of the more recent rise of the blogosphere and citizen media. The essay originally appeared in The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association and is collected in Acker’s book Bodies of Work: Essays (1997). Read the whole essay here.
“If we look at the literary industry today, writing is in trouble. Very few writers who spend most of their time writing and those who want to spend most of their time writing, can make a living by doing what they do most the time and by what they love to do most. Those who can and do support themselves writing do so, on the whole, by virtue of something called copyright. Copyright’s existence, I believe, is based on the following assumptions or sentences: An author is the only person who has written her or his own work; an author owns her or his own work.
Now in the first sentence—an author is the only person who has written his or her own work—the assumed definition of identity is questionable. For instance, I do not write out of nothing, or from nothing, for I must write with the help of other texts, be these texts written ones, oral ones, those of memory, those of dream, etc. In the second sentence, an author owns her or his own work, the verb to own must be questioned.
In other words, as writers we depend economically on copyright, its existence, because we are living and working, whether we like it or not, in a bourgeois-industrialist, in a capitalist society, a society based on ownership. One needs to own in order to survive, in fact, in order to be.
Our society, however, is in the process of, or has already changed into, a postindustrial ex-national economic beast. I hope that I am saying this correctly. As economic grounds change, so do all others. Both language and communications and the place of language and of communications in our society are rapidly changing.
For instance: I teach writing courses at the San Francisco Art Institute. Each year, fewer and fewer of my students read books. I don’t mean that they don’t read. They do, though they might not admit it. They read magazines, ‘zines, they go to art performances, to spoken word events; they eagerly participate in such events; they buy CDs in which rock starts and poets perform. More and more students and, I might add, my friends, and myself are using the Internet as a location where we can place our work. For the moment, the Net is a free zone… for those who can afford or access the necessary equipment. Whether it will remain free or whether our government will be able to enact strict controls, or whether various multinational corporations will be able to turn the Net into a cross between TV media land and a shopping mall, an elephantine version of America Online, this no one knows. Certainly, there are those who think that the Net cannot be controlled. Now, I have no ideas whether or not it will be, that is, whether or not it can be. But either way, there is one thing I suspect. I suspect that copyright as we now define it will become a thing of the past.
I have taken a long-winded route to make one simple point, something that I think most writers now know: if it is at this historical moment difficult for a writer to make a living by depending on copyright, in the future it may prove impossible for all but the very, very few.
It is not the case that the Net is providing an alternative method of book publishing and distribution. Not at the moment, as the technology stands. No one is going to download a whole book, for it’s far easier to run to the nearest bookstore. The existence of the Net is threatening the literary industry in another way: my students, people who work, which probably means that they work more than eight hours a day and have little time to read, many, many of the people in this society are preferring to engage in writing and in writerly activities outside the realm of books. And so to a large extent, outside the realm of copyright as copyright now exists.
If we get rid of copyright as it now exists, do we have to throw writing away? In order to answer this question, I think that it’s necessary to try to see clearly, to see the society in which we’re living. I should say societies, for sometimes the only entities that make our societies single seem to be McDonald’s hamburgers and Madonna. We need to see how we as writers fit into our societies as and while these societies are changing. How can we, as Hannah Arendt says, even in worlds that seem to have become inhuman, remain obligated to these worlds? Obligated, for being writers, our job is to hear and put together narrations and so to give meaning even to what seems to be or is inhuman. How can I, as a writer, be of use to and in my societies? That is the question that underlies the one of copyright.
I think that it is hard to understand what writing is in our society because writing has become so entangled with the literary industry. Entangled to the point that there no longer seems to be any difference between the two. For instance, if a writer is not big business, she or he is not a good, that is, finally, not a publishable writer.
Let me paraphrase and so repeat Hannah Arendt’s question: To what extent do we remain obligated to a world even when our presence is no longer desired in that world? Are we, writers, obligated to the literary industry and to the society behind that industry? Here is Hannah Arendt’s answer: “Flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored.” Flight does not mean abandonment.
As it now stands, the literary industry depends upon copyright. But not literature. Euripedes, for instance, wrote his version of Electra while Sophocles’s “copyright” was still active. Not to mention Shakespeare’s, Marlowe’s, and Ford’s use of each other’s texts. My worries with copyright, however, are not so academic. My worries concern the increasing marginalization of writers and of their writings in this society. Whenever writers are considered marginal to a society, something is deeply wrong, wrong in that society and wrong with the relations between writing and the society. For to write should be to write the world and, simultaneously, to engage in the world. But the literary industry as it now exists seems to be obfuscating relations between this society’s writers and this society.
Once more we need to see what writing is. We need to step away from all the business. We need to step to the personal. This is that I mean by flight. Business has become too heavy, too dominant. We need to remember friends, that we write deeply out of friendship, that we write to friends. We need to regain some of the energy, as writers and as readers, that people have on the Internet when for the first time they e-mail, when they discover that they can write anything, even to a stranger, even the most personal of matters. When they discover that strangers can communicate to each other.
The bestowing of meaning and, thus, the making of the world, the word as world: this is what writing is about.
Back to Hannah Arendt’s words. You see, my lazy mind never goes anywhere: it only returns. Writing, as defined by the literary industry, is all about individuals. I own my writing; that is copyright. “Power arises,” Arendt writes, “only where people act together, not where people grow stronger as individuals.”
To write is to do other than announce oneself as an enclosed individual. Even the most narcissist of texts, say Nabokov’s Lolita, reaches out to, in Lolita’s case grabs at, its reader. To write is to write to another. Not for another, as if one could take away that other’s otherness, but to another. To write, as Gertrude Stein and Maurice Blanchot both have said, is to write to a stranger, to a friend. As we go forward, say on the Net, perhaps we are also going back, and I am not a great believer in linear models of time, to times when literature and economics met each other in the region of friendship. “The ancients,” comments Arendt, “thought friends indispensable to human life, indeed that a life without friends was not really worth living.”
Friendship is always a political act, for it unites citizens into a polis, a (political) community. And it is this friendship that the existence of copyright (as it is now defined) has obfuscated.
The loss of friendship, the giving over of friendship to business based on individualism, has caused loss of energy in the literary world. Think, for a moment, with how much more energy one does something for a lover or for a close friend than when one acts only in the service of oneself.
In his remarkable essay about the writings of his friend Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot opposes two kinds of relationships, that of friendship and that of totalitarianism. Both Blanchot and Bataille lived through Nazism and Stalinism. A totalitarian relationship, Blanchot states, is one in which the subject denies the otherness, therefore the very existence of the other person, the person to whom he or she is talking. Thus, the totalitarian relationship is built upon individualism as closure. Individualism as the closing down of energy, of meaning. Whereas, when I talk to my friend, when I write to her, I am writing to someone whose otherness I accept. It is the difference between me and my friend that allows meaning; meaning begins in this difference. And it is meaning, the meaningfulness of the world, that is consciousness. You see, I am finally talking about my writing.”