• Response to Jonathan Lethems's "The Ecstasy of Influence, A Plagarism"

    For Applications class, I read Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence, A Plagarism". I had enjoyed his writing before, and the subject was of particular interest to me. In the most personal ways, it addressed my love of hip hop and my experience trying to sell and protect my photographic intellectual property in a time where technology and culture conspired against traditional modes of capitalism.

    The article was frequently commented on and comments were responded to by my classmates. The entire thread is here.


    The ecstasy of influence:A plagiarism By Jonathan Lethem


    This article is about a few things. It’s about appropriation, simulacra, auteurism, economics and the gift of art.

    Lethem talks about the beauty in the tradition of taking, copying and redefining ideas. He also talks about the illegitimacy of trying to own a culture experience, even if you made it. Somewhat compartmentalizing the entitlement to valuable compensation for the immediate thing you created, he discusses the importance and benefit of permitting access to intellectual property for the sake of the Commons. It’s a challenge to the status quo of Capitalism, an indictment of SoPA and a vote of confidence for Open Source. But it boils down very simply to this expression: We should make things for the service and enjoyment of society, and restriction of ideas only keeps the best of our potential from us.

    This argument sits somewhat outside the important discussion of our relationship to taking resources and outputting pollutants into the environment. I mean this both literally and metaphorically. But it not only espouses the creativity of sampling, mashing up and reimagining, it suggests that many intellectual property restrictions only benefit the corporate ownership related to that thing. The terms of the rules are defined by the corporate interest, and they benefit the corporate food web (the distributors over the creators) more than it truly serves the populace. He illustrates the derivation of nourishment from music and literature and film. He cites that Einstein takes credit for his work, but does not maintain ownership over everyone else’s opportunity to explore, use and remake it.

    Lethem says, “Honoring the commons is not a matter of moral exhortation. It is a practical necessity. We in Western society are going through a period of intensifying belief in private ownership, to the detriment of the public good. We have to remain constantly vigilant to prevent raids by those who would selfishly exploit our common heritage for their private gain. Such raids on our natural resources are not examples of enterprise and initiative. They are attempts to take from all the people just for the benefit of a few.”

    I’d say this is a compelling case for Open Source. The question is: How can Open Source play with Capitalism and not get sullied or destroyed? There is evidence supporting the idea that Capitalism is not so much broken as it was not a sustainable or “good” paradigm to begin with. These criticisms don’t usually promote a solution other than “tearing it all down and starting fresh”. But that fix seems oversimplified and excludes strategy. I don’t see Open Source as a polar opposite to Capitalism, but rather an entirely alternative ethos, whose achilles heel is the retort, “how will I earn money, own things and therefore provide for my family?” But if you can release from that mindset, the ways that the greater good and individuals benefit from it are more evident.