Tuesday, December 22, 2009


nypl digital archives : new york city apartment plans

The Belnord Apartments. Floor ... Digital ID: 417224. New York Public Library

Plan of  8th, 10th and 12th fl... Digital ID: 417218. New York Public Library

Floor plans of The Hanover. Digital ID: 417378. New York Public Library

Typical floor plan of the St. ... Digital ID: 417270. New York Public Library

Floor planss of The Riverdale.... Digital ID: 417306. New York Public Library

Floor plan of Stanley Court. Digital ID: 417286. New York Public Library

Floor plans of Terrace Court. Digital ID: 417304. New York Public Library

Floor plans of The Wyoming.  Digital ID: 417311. New York Public Library

Typical floor plans of the Sta... Digital ID: 417334. New York Public Library

Typical floor plan -- Central ... Digital ID: 417362. New York Public Library

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

thigh tattoo

really, i am thinking about it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

frukt och spets

here, spanish fruit and lace. i wish confirmation gowns came in big sizes.

now, folk music concert, making bagels, translation, harmonica.

later, ambiance, grandmothers house, skiing, berlin!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

spanish strengths

papal tiles, pamplonian peacock, 19th c. suspenders, the beautiful best, frederick mares' hair art. the bulls were not running and hemingway was deep in his stubborn stone stature, but the wind blew strong and the wine was sweet.

the blank space

The Blank Space

Glenn Gould, Russia, Finland And The North

Sergei Medvedev

from here

The Unbearable Lightness Of The North

Of all corners of the world, North is the furthest. It is the most elusive and the least circumscribed, an ill-defined space rather than a delineated place. An old Russian joke has it, that there are no roads in Russia, only directions. Likewise the North is a direction to which the compass needle points but never arrives; the North lacks locality, territoriality, borders and other signs of our rational geometrical civilization.

Lacking in rationality, the North is rich in mythos and implied meanings. In many traditional mythologies the North is singled out as the outer fringe; it is much more external to the center than the South, East or West.1 This is specifically important for the Scandinavian mythology, where the central populated Midgard is opposed to barren, rocky and cold Utgard inhabited by giants (Jotuns); the Utgard, however, does not completely encircle the Midgard, but rather lies in the North. The same is characteristic of most Siberian mythologies, and of the Finns, who locate the realm of the dead, Manala, in the North. Its more general name is Pohjola ("Northern Land"), a frozen rocky expanse where earth meets the sky. In this sense, the North is not simply one of the peripheries, but the generic outback, mother of all peripheries.

This is not to deny a mythological dimension to other parts of the world. The West has its rich mythology of being the sinister "left side", the side of the sunset and the dead, but also the side of wealth and gold, from Eldorado and mythical India to the American frontier. The East engenders myths of sunrise, life and birth, the Christmas star and the Three Kings; Morgenland is the land of wisdom and meditation, while later connotations include various forms of European curiosity, from Orientalism to chinoiserie. Finally, the South has the most basic mythology of sunshine and a plentiful land, symbolized by Goethe's "Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen bluhn?", and Bounty chocolate advertisements.

However, both West and East have been explored and assimilated by the modern culture, and rendered even less sacral by the end of the Cold War, while the South has been relegated to the overpopulated Third World. Which leaves us with the North as the last Frontier, the only part of the world that holds the fascination of emptiness, a white space in our mental maps. Few people travel to Cape Finisterre in Portugal, the western-most point of Europe, for its symbolic value; Europe's southernmost and eastern-most points are hardly known to the public at all; on the contrary, an entire tourist industry has been built around pilgrimages to the Nordkap. The North turns out to be marketable precisely because of its remoteness, a relative obscurity and anonymity.

In other words, whereas the East, West and South have more or less fixed meanings, and are interpreted as relatively populated and explored, the North appears as a mythological domain, a semiotic project, a constructed identity. The North is more often communicated than experienced, imagined rather than embodied. Talking of the signifier and the signified, Ferdinand de Saussure used the metaphor of the sheet of paper: the signifie and the signifiant are inextricably linked as two sides of the same sheet. In the North, this structuralist link is far less obvious; indeed, the North may be a one-sided sheet of paper, a signifier without the signified. The North is the emptiness we are filling with our imagination, narratives and texts; a blank sheet of paper, on which words are written and erased; an empty snow field on which lonely figures emerge, pass, and disappear.

The following four fragments examine northernness as a construction of identity around a blank space, the field of emptiness. The first has to do with the "Idea of North" as devised by the Canadian pianist, writer and communicator Glenn Gould, manifested in his texts, radio broadcasts and innovative interpretations of J.S. Bach's piano works. The second fragment deals with an alternative construction of national identity in Northern Russia in the late Middle Ages — a project never accomplished in reality, yet fully consummated in spirit. The third fragment, on the contrary, treats a palpable reality — the state called Finland — constructed around the idea of a Northern borderland and periphery. The final fragment speaks about a virtual construction of regionality in Europe's North in the 1990s, including regional initiatives such as the Barents Euro-Arctic Region and Finland's recent Northern Dimension initiative for the EU. These four fragments have nothing in common except the fact that the North, taken as the idea of emptiness, solitude, minimalism and resignation, nurtures creative imagination in such dissimilar enterprises. Or probably it is the deceiving lightness of the snow, and the elusive quality of light of the high latitudes, that allows for a free play of notes, words and identities.

Bach In The Snow: Glenn Gould's the Idea Of North

The Canadian Glenn Gould (1932-1982) has undertaken probably the most radical reinterpretation of Johann Sebastian Bach's piano music in the 20th century. In fact, this was rather a rediscovery of Bach, a return to Bach's original Urtext, pure and sublime. Despite its enormous human appeal, Bach's music tends to be abstract, as exemplified by a massive edifice like the Art of the Fugue, a body of purely intellectual music, a lofty exercise in counterpoint. The Art of the Fugue was not even intended for any specific instrument, or ensemble, or indeed for performance. Rather than music to hear and feel, this is a text to read and decipher, an enjoyment for the eyes and the brain, rather than for the ears and the heart.

Likewise, much of Bach's piano music is a contrived orderly exercise
— in tonality, in counterpoint, in playing technique, etc. But, ever since Bach's rediscovery for a wider audience by the early Romantics (first of all by Felix Mendelssohn) in the 1840s, and for the next century, his music was interpreted in an increasingly sensual manner, with varied tempi, dynamic contrasts, and colorful timbres. Aided by the construction of the modern piano, which took its shape by the middle of the 19th century, generations of musicians and listeners alike have read into Bach's piano work a lot of extra-textual meaning and feeling. This Romantic and post-Romantic reading of Bach was summarized in Bruno Muggelini's "Critical Edition" of Bach's piano music, a textbook for generations of keyboard enthusiasts, complete with dynamic and tempo indications, accents, ligatures, etc.

In his 1950s concerts, and especially in the 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations which instantaneously made him famous, Glenn Gould resolutely challenged this tradition by returning to Bach's Urtext, strict and rigorous. His obsessive search of a tight-actioned piano, and treatment of his instrument much like the harpsichord or even its precursor, the virginal, a refusal to use the pedal, a non-legato and non-rubato manner of play, a radical revision of tempi have stressed Bach's counterpoint and brought out the lines and voices hitherto obscured by the "harmonious" and "heroic" Romantic interpretation of Bach. The result was the clarity of definition and textures and a rarely equaled analytical subtlety and acuity,2 with notes detached like strokes in a pointillist painting of Georges Seurat, and voices clear like monochrome lines in the works of Piet Mondrian. For Gould, rhythm and the clarity of articulation prevailed over melody and harmony; in challenging the legato nature of the piano, he found the ideal of the keyboard in the 16th-century English virginal music (William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons).

What Gould did to Bach was the deconstruction of a dominant Romantic discourse. Deleuze and Guattari defined deconstruction as bracketing out all non-discourse preconditions of language;3 by the same token, Gould's return to Bach's Urtext was a return to music as pure discourse, excluding all non-discursive elements and meanings, destroying the binary oppositions of forte and piano, legato and staccato, etc. This act of deconstruction to some extent places Glenn Gould in the context of postmodernism, although his eccentric personality evades strict definitions and classifications.

Glenn Gould's personal lifestyle was both eccentric and hermetic. The pianist refused to fly, took car trips by himself to the far north of Canada, and spent the last years of his life sequestered in a claustrophic hotel studio on the outskirts of Toronto. His image included a bizarre getup consisting of woolen gloves, sweater, coat and scarf, even in warm weather. In 1964 he retired, at the wizened age of thirty-two, from all public concert recitals to devote himself entirely to recording.4

Gould's obsession with recording, and his incessant search of total control of the medium was matched by his interest in new recording technologies, and electronic media, going far beyond the technocratic fashion of the 1960s. He is known to have taken interest in the ideas of his compatriot Marshall McLuhan. Apart from being a great musician, Gould was also a master of manipulation, or "creative lying", as he put it himself,5 constructing his transparent spaces of air and fantasy, bringing his listener an intellectual reward, rather than sensual gratification. Gould himself was the message no less powerful than the music he sought to convey, or to re-compose.

Much of Gould's method has to do with the artist's fascination with the Idea of North. Having spent much of his childhood amid Northern landscape in his family's country house on Lake Simcoe (on the edge of Northern Ontario), Gould was always inspired by Northern Canada, and planned spending several months of the polar night behind the Arctic Circle. He liked citing his mother's family relationship to the Norwegian composer Edward Grieg. Gould's interpretation of Grieg's Piano Sonata Op. 1, its peaceful, detached, unworldly sonority reveals yet another vision of northernness. And, of course, what Gould could only emulate in his music — the idea of northernness
— he was always able to materialize in his clothing: his eccentric sweater, scarf and mittens as ascetic signs of a deeper Northern faith.

The interest of the artist in the psychological aspects of the far north as well as in life in remote locations in Northern Canada translated itself into an innovative series of radio documentaries entitled The Idea of North that Gould produced for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. He sought to examine the personal experiences of solitude during the Arctic winter, the stories of silence, resignation and human endurance. In these documentaries Gould experimented with human voices, making them sound in counterpoint like voices in a fugue, completely discernible, individual and solitary, combining in the meta-narrative of the North, transparent and pristine.

Gould re-invented Bach in a Northern manner, by means of minimalist reduction. He avoided the temptations of the experimental and avant-garde minimalism of John Cage, and the crowd-pleasing New Age minimalism of Philip Glass; Gould's "Northern" minimalism was a rigorous reduction to notes, an ascetic resignation. Gould's sound reminds one of a Northern landscape, subdued, uncolored and understated.6 The Canadian artist has transcended the sensual nature of the modern piano (therefore his habit of "singing", i.e. accompanying his piano playing with his voice which he explained as an attempt to overcome the mechanical imperfection of the piano, lowering the barrier between the music he heard in his imagination, and its actual sound in reality) and reached for the pure musical text. His music-making was a construction of immaculate uncorrupted textuality, and North was his natural medium.7 The North is textual per se; it is, in a sense, an Urtext, a white field, a blank space, a one-sided sheet of paper, a non-referential sign, a quintessential periphery questioning the dominant narratives of modernity. The North is an abode of schizophrenic solitude and unimpeded creativity. It is all about imagination and invention, a mischievous and playful blizzard, a creative lie.

Another Russia: North As Russia's Spiritual Refuge

The Russian seal, the double-headed eagle, symbolizes the national project of bridging East and West. The binary format of national identity includes both the imperial component (the seal was taken from the fallen Byzantine Empire in the mid-16th century), and the inherent cultural duality of Russia. The main narrative of Russia has been shaped by this dichotomy, complete with the two traditional battlefronts of Russia (the Steppes in the East and Catholicism in the West), the two directions of imperial expansion (Central Asia and the Caucasus are "East" rather than "South"), the two capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the two main intellectual parties, the Slavophiles and the Westernizers (the Eurasianists have never risen to political prominence).

However, the Russian project is not exhausted by this binary opposition, with alternative forms of national identity periodically emerging in the North. Northern Russian "sideshows" have never aspired for the national scene, or indeed for political power, but remained ideal (at times idealistic) and imaginative experiments, peculiar indications of what Russia could have been, but never was.

One such development was taking place in the Russian Church in the mid-14th century, at the end of a protracted "Asian episode" of Russian history, the Tartar yoke. A decisive fight with the Golden Horde, the 1380 Battle of Kulikovo Polye, was still to come, and Russia was in a deep economic, cultural and moral crisis. Meanwhile, the first attempts at rebuilding were already underway. The Russian Orthodoxy, that for over a century had been displaying the heroic holiness of warrior saints, now produced a new industrious devotion, oriented towards politics and economics. However, by the 14th century, the Russian Orthodoxy produced a completely different type of holiness — the ascetic ideal — represented by several generations of the "Trans-Volga startsy", the desert monks of Northern Russia.

The ascetic movement emerged in the mid-14th century in several places in Northern Russia. It was headed by one of the most revered Russian saints, St.Sergius of Radonezh. A son of wealthy parents, after their death he gave away his property and at the age of twenty-one retired from the world. He set out to live in the wild forest northeast of Moscow. His brother, who accompanied him at the beginning, could not bear the hardships of desert life and abandoned him. For a long period St.Sergius lived completely alone, surrounded by wild animals; the legend has it, that his only companion was a bear. Later on, disciples and pilgrims started to come, and eventually the secluded shelter turned into a monastery, the renowned Holy Trinity-St.Sergius Laura.

The ascetic movement continued with St. Sergius' followers who went further North, venturing hundreds of miles into the wilderness. St. Sergius' disciples — St. Kirill of the Beloye lake, St. Paul of Obnorsk, St. Dionisius of Glushitsa, St. Cornelius of Komel — settled in the truly wild places of the North: White (Beloe) Lake, the Vologda forests, and even as far as the coast of the White Sea.8 Continuing throughout the 15th century, this spiritual movement later was described as the Golden Age of Russian asceticism.

There were two main elements to this movement. The first was geography, the northern vector of the ascetic calling. It was namely in the North that the Russian religious renaissance took place in the 14th-15th centuries. The other element was the strong spiritual thrust of the movement. This was initiated by St. Sergius himself (the first and only saint in Russia, a country with a weak tradition of theology and religious mysticism), who devoted his life to the Holy Trinity and who claimed to see the apparition of the Holy Virgin.9 The Trans-Volga startsy, too, concentrated on the spiritual side of faith, caring little about wealth, education, economic activity, and other lay aspects of Christianity.

The impractical nature of the Northern religious renaissance might seem strange at a time when the country was recovering from Tartar rule, and gathering its forces. For example,an alternative religious vision — a practical, worldly, policy-oriented Christianity — was later developed in Moscow by St. Joseph of Volotsk, and soon became closely connected, at first, with the Moscow Princes and then with the Moscow Tsars in a traditional Russo-Byzantine "symphony" of the Church and the State. However, the North was the site for the creation of a spiritual alternative to the imperial Muscovite Russia, constructing Russia as civitas Dei, a City of God, and not as a civitas mundi.

Indeed, northernness turns out to be Russia's most distinctive otherness. The North has historically emerged as a spiritual refuge from the proprietary policies of Moscow — and also of St. Petersburg, the imperial capital of Russia. It was in the North that hundreds of thousands of the Old Believers, raskolniki, fled after the 1654 schism of the Russian church, persecuted by the Moscow Tsars and later by Peter the Great. Their flight was not simply an escape, but a religious Odyssey, a search for the promised land of the true faith. In their drive, raskolniki reached the northernmost and eastern-most fringes of Russia, crossed the Bering Straight into Alaska, spreading into the Northwest of the American continent where their colonies could be found as far away as San Francisco.

Some better-known examples of "alternative Russia" in the North include the medieval republics of Novgorod (1136-1478) and Pskov (1348-1510), reaching to the White Sea and North Urals, or the Pomor trade of Northern Russia with the Hanseatic League in the 14th and 15th centuries. As to Russia's northern capital, St. Petersburg, it has a certain duality with respect to mainstream Russia discourse. On the one hand, it is the capital of the Russian empire, the seat of bureaucracy, a step-mother of the nation, a contrived but heartless city of granite, castigated by generations of Russian poets and writers. On the other hand, it is a powerful alternative to Moscow, an alternative of an imaginary kind. The same poets called St. Petersburg a phantom, a miasma of the Neva swamps, an imagined city where monuments can at any moment come to life. In the Russian cultural tradition, from Alexander Pushkin to Andrei Belyi and the "World of Art" movement, St. Petersburg was a city of specters, never certain of its own existence. In a way, this was a reflection of the fact that it was "the most contrived city in the world", as Fyodor Dostoyevski called it, an autocratic caprice, a product of whimsical imagination of Peter the Great. Moscow was a rooted, natural city, the heart of Russia. St. Petersburg was Russia's head — or rather, Russia's dream.

During the Soviet period, as the capital moved back to Moscow, the Northern alternative in St. Petersburg was (culturally) stressed even further. It became a capital of intellectual dissidence (being detached from the seat of power, the Leningrad intelligentsia was to a lesser extent integrated into the ruling regime than their Moscow brethren), and has continuously incurred the wrath of the Soviet authorities, from the "Leningrad trial" and the assassination of Sergei Kirov in the 1930s to the intellectual purges of Andrei Zhdanov in the 1940s. It is also noteworthy that in the late Soviet period, under Mikhail Gorbachev, Leningrad produced a large part of the political elite of the first "democratic wave" (Anatoli Sobchak, Galina Starovoitova, Anatoli Chubais).

At a crucial point in the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was about to collapse, the Northern alternative once again emerged in Russia, this time in the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The dissident writer called on Russia to concentrate her forces, to abandon the neo-imperial designs and attempts to preserve the Union, and to embark upon a period of enlightened isolation, developing in the Northeastern direction. Solzhenitsyn cited the 15th-century monks' drive to the North as a prophesy of the future destiny of Russia.10 This appeal gained some public attention, but when Solzhenitsyn returned from the exile and became a fact of the political and intellectual routine, his Northern project fell into oblivion.

The Russian North was represented in different periods by the ascetics and schismatics, by the free hunters and citizens of the medieval city-states, by dreamers like the St. Petersburg writer Vladimir Odoevsky and avant-garde Leningrad poet Daniil Kharms, and appeared as a religious, cultural and political alternative to the dominant Russian discourse embedded in the semi-Asian Moscow. Being essentially decentered and peripheral, a Frontier close to the elements, the North engenders a freedom of spirit and intellectual daring. It questions mainland Russia but never itself provides an answer or produces an institutional alternative.

The North was never more than a promise of a different Russia, an unrealized cultural form, a Celestial Jerusalem sought by the schismatics and found in spirit. The Russian North is an imagined identity, an illusory belonging, a myth, like Atlantis, or the Golden Age. In the end, it does not really matter whether or not Atlantis, the Golden Age or the legendary Russian North existed in the past; what really matters is that their mythology shapes our narratives of the present.

Finland: A Northern Road To Postmodernity

To see the link between Finland's northernness and the condition of postmodernity, one need not go further than the films of the Kaurismaki brothers, like Night on Earth. Their ironic quality sublimates and celebrates marginal people, situations and discourses, indeed Finland's peripherality as such.

By virtue of history and geography, Finland has been marginalized thrice: as a Northern hinterland of Europe, as a Swedish, and later Russian, province, and as an East-West border. Finland has been permanently finding herself in No Man's Land, a mythical Ultima Thule, in a liminal position, like Karl Jaspers' "ultimate situation" or Gilles Deleuze's "schizophrenia". Finland is a generic periphery, a northern borderland which has become a state.

Finland's national project has been traditionally influenced by feelings of borderdom and backwoodness, and a desire to abandon these for the sake of an image of shining modernity. However, overwhelming proprietary neighbors and ruthless Great Power politics have always marginalized Finland. This is the central problematic and the essential psychological trauma of Finnish modernity which has never been consummated. The impossibility of completing the internally conflicted project of modernity has led Finland to a critical reappraisal of her Northern peripheral status, especially after being firmly locked in a post-World War II international configuration within the Soviet sphere of influence. Making the best of her ambiguous international standing, Finland has made of 'peripherality' a virtue called neutrality, and a political novelty called Finlandization.

Northernness, remoteness, anonymity, neutrality, and to some extent even "Sovietness", have combined into an unpretentious yet comfortable setting. In this environment, Finland was not compelled to care about a number of traditional tasks of modernity such as forming a grand national narrative, building a defense industry or developing its own security doctrine. On the other hand, a northern location, the sheer size of undeveloped territories, and peripheral communities in need of state support have placed special demands on the development of communications infrastructure and welfare schemes.

By design, Finland is largely a modern country, respectful of police and the President. However, Finland's Nordicity, peripherality and cultural duality are permanently placing her into various postmodern contexts. A typical Finnish landscape is that of a deserted forest crowned by a cellphone transmitter tower. Premodern conifers and postmodern technology combine in a unique environmentally-friendly politically-correct cyberscape. Except for a few mountainous areas in Northern Lapland, Finland is flat (which is also reflected in its architecture and communal housing); it looks like one big rhizome, one of Deleuze's and Guattari's "thousand plateaus". Finland's borderdom has led her to postmodern affluent boredom ahead of the West. She has arrived ahead of schedule, she is already there, sitting by a lakeside sauna, speaking decent English into a Nokia mobile phone. The only nuisances are the mosquitoes.

In general, borderlands and peripheries are breeding grounds for postmodernity. Outlying countries such as Finland, Ireland and Portugal are more comfortable with the postmodern polity of the EU than the core heavyweights. The additional merit of Finland's peripherality is her border with Russia, endowing her with greater political leverage, EU's structural/regional funds, and possibilities for engaging in cooperative non-exclusive networks.

Finland has capitalized on her northernness and backwoodness, first as a nation-state, and later as a transnational actor. She is remarkably relevant in a post-national world, politically, economically and socially. Also, in terms of global etiquette, Finland's northernness rhymes with political correctness: the country is green, environmental, non-NATO, UN-loving, liberal, tolerant, dolphin-friendly, free-range, low-cholesterol, low-maintenance, and on top of all that, run by a female president. A green dream and a Northern construct.

Finland, being perfectly aware of her peripheral position, never seriously tried to change it, either by constructing her own centrality or by joining some other existing center. Instead, Finland has come to prominence in a new (electronic) world in which traditional center-periphery relationships are relativized and inversed. Today, it is not so much that Finland has become a center as that the whole world has become a periphery. Centers become increasingly pointless and numerous peripheries proliferate, dictating new norms of urban planning, economic life and group identities (e.g. Orange County in California). The North, a periphery par excellence, has therefore turned out to be perfectly suited to our unexciting tomorrows.

Inventing Northern Europe

For both Russia and Finland, the North has provided an escape from the dominant East-West binary; an alternative fully implemented by Finland, and never realistically entertained by Russia. For Europe writ large, the North may be an alternative as well. In the North, Europe has a unique opportunity to look at herself from a different perspective, escaping from the doom of East-West frictions that stream her modern history.

Once again, the North emerges as a postmodern alternative, relativizing and deconstructing binary opposites. A postmodern solution for the East-West dilemma can thus be found by defining the figure of the Third (pole), namely the European North. The North (including the Baltic and Barents regions) is unique in several ways. First, what distinguishes it from other areas along the "Great Cultural Divide" (Rudolf Kjellen) is its shared peripherality with respect to both East and West. Narratives of "great Europe" and "great Russia" are marginalized and estranged in the Nordic fringes, and their opposition is made relative. In this sense, the prospects of region-building in the North are relatively unaffected by the East-West controversy.

Second, the North is less influenced by "vertical" discourses and structures of subordination. It has never been too strongly subjected to the disciplining projects of Catholicism, Russian imperialism,11 Soviet Communism, Atlanticism or Europeanism, while its Lutheran legacy has never given rise to a dominating type of supranationalism. Thus, over the centuries, the North has developed a sort of cultural and political permissiveness, an allergy to grand narratives and various forms of collectivism, and a healthy pragmatism based on Lutheran individualism and Hanse-type liberalism.

Finally, a major asset of the North is the existence of an East-West interface, the Finnish Russian (which is also the EU-Russian) border, which maintains an intricate network of cross-border "horizontal" dependencies, and a considerable political potential for regionalism.

A shared periphery, a cooperative psychological setup, and an experience of local networking exempt the North from the traditional territorial discourses based on power, history and identity, placing it in a deterritorialized post-national paradigm in which spaces are increasingly imagined and communicated. The North emerges as one of the so-called "meso-regions", i.e. less determined by geography than by ideas, symbols, visions or strategic instruments, all aimed at mobilizing resources to solve common problems. According to Riccardo Capellin, meso-regions "do not correspond to existing territories but may indicate future territories and correspond to actual tendencies of development within them"12.

For some years now, the North has been constructed as a sort of "future territory", an imagined belonging, an experiment in postmodern territoriality whereby a region is being politically produced, communicated as politically relevant. Academics and politicians compete in constructing and floating visions of a European North that anticipate and even generate reality. For instance, Norwegian policy planners claim to have "invented" the Barents Euro-Arctic Region. According to Sverre Jervell, "it is possible to draw a circle on a map, define this circle as a new region, and await the events. In Norway's case, we invented a region, and to our surprise, it became a reality".13 Titles of recent academic papers on regionalism in the European North display the same imaginative quality: "Constructing a Sea without Water" (Leo Granberg), "Dreaming of the Barents Region" (Jyrki Kakonen), "Invention of the Barents Region" (Ola Tunander), etc.14 As stated by Pertti Joenniemi,

the forms of new regionality in general tend to be light, innovative, spontaneous, in no way self-evident and perhaps at times even opportunistic. The reading might be that these are assets rather than liabilities. Region-building attracts interest because regions have a strong conceptual and visionary side; they are incomplete and still in the making. The conceptual breakthrough making them into joint platforms of communication is already important as such.15

The Nordic academic and political community engages in the subjectivity of a Schopenhauerian intensity, producing the Region as Will and Idea. A radical postmodernist like Jean Baudrillard has described this phenomenon as a "precession of the model".

A similar semiotic exercise has been undertaken in the Finnish initiative for the EU called the Northern Dimension. Its most remarkable feature has been that it has remained a purely discursive enterprise, an exercise not in planning, but "naming". As Pertti Joenniemi states: "[T]he initiative has encountered some success as a discourse, but remains vague in political or institutional terms". Most strikingly, it has not been endowed with any specific institutions or specially targeted resources; the 1998 ruling by the EU Commission even denied it the status of a "regional initiative". In the same paper, Joenniemi gives an account of the Northern Dimension's impact:

The Finnish initiative of a Northern Dimension, launched originally in 1997, yielded results in the sense that the European Council noted in December 1998, in response to an Interim Report prepared by the Commission, that the region has needs that the EU will have to address. It was noted that the Northern region is of special importance to the Union. The region is seen as being rich in natural resources and human potential. Moreover, it invites cooperation with Russia. The Council called for a coherent approach and effective policies towards the region in all EU issues. The bolstered position of northernness was given symbolical expression by enriching the vocabularies of the Union with the concept of a 'Northern Dimension'.

The italicized words pertain to the sphere of pure discourse, and, consequently, the Northern Dimension boils down to a mere symbolic exchange whose greatest achievement to date is "enriching the vocabulary". It renders the ND invaluable in diplomatic terms — it is PR-intensive, media-effective, low-cost and non-committal at the same time.

It remains to be seen whether the ND enterprise, or indeed the entire region-building process in Europe's North, within or outside the EU, will yield any practical results. In a sense, it does not matter much, as long as the North remains a discursive and intellectual testing-ground. Maybe the ultimate purpose of the "Northern Dimension" in European history will lie in preserving Europe's transcendental intelligible nature, remaining blank, like a palimpsest, on which texts are written, just to be erased and replaced by other texts, or like Karl Popper's "Third Universe", the textual world of objective knowledge which is disconnected from everyday prosaic pursuits.

Whatever it stands for, the North continues to display a remarkable intensity of verbal life, inviting new imaginations and discourses. If like nature, the EU abhors a vacuum, then the final destiny of the Northern Dimension may lie in our filling the blank space of the North with ephemeral passing texts. This essay can be considered as a contribution to this neverending discursive exercise, a merry-go-round of signs and simulations, clowns and horses, all revolving ceaselessly in the empty wintry park.


1. The viewpoint taken in this text is European, in fact Eurocentric. Obviously North and South would mean something completely different for, for example, an Argentinean (cf. Jorge Luis Borges' short story The South).

2. Jonathan Cott, Conversations with Glenn Gould. Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown & Co., p. 11.

3. Deleuze, Gilles et Felix Guattari. Capitalisme et schizophrenie. L'Anti-OEdipe. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1980: p. 98.

4. Cott, p. 12.

5. Andrew Kazdin. Glenn Gould at Work: Creative Lying. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1989, pp. 121-122

6. The Northern, "chilling" character of intellectual counterpoint music has been examined in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. Arnold Schoenberg's highly rationalized twelve-tone system is associated there with images of cold and ice crystals, and private hell of the novel's protagonist, composer Adrian Leverkuhn, is made of ice.

7. The link between Gould's Bach and the North has been perfectly captured by the Canadian film director Francois Girard in his Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould (the structure of the film repeats the 32 Goldberg Variations). The leitmotif of the film is the image of an empty snow field. In the first episode, set to the opening Aria from the Goldberg Variations, a lonely figure of Glenn Gould appears in the snow, and slowly approaches the viewer. In the final episode, set to the concluding Aria, Gould walks away and disappears in the whiteness.

8. Georgy Fedotov, "Tragedia drevnerusskoi svyatosti" [The Tragedy of Old Russian Holiness], in Fedotov, Imperia i svoboda [Empire and Freedom], New York: Posev, 1989, p. 103.

9. Georgy Fedotov, Svyatye drevnei Rusi [The Saints of the Old Russia]. Paris: YMCA-Press, 1989, pp.128-132, 138.

10. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Kak nam obustroit Rossiyu [How We Can Settle In Russia]. Moscow: Komsomolskaya Pravda, 1990. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "Raskayanie i samoogranichenie kak kategorii natsionalnoi zhizni" [Repentance and self-restriction as categories of national life], Novyi mir, no. 5, 1991, pp. 15-16.

11. Cf. Russia's ruthless treatment of Poland and a generally milder attitude to Finland during the 19th century.

12. Riccardo Cappellin, "Interregional Cooperation in Europe: An Introduction", in Cappellin & P.W.J. Batey (eds) Regional Networks, Border Regions and European Integration. London: Pion, 1993, p. 2.

13. Sverre Jervell, "Barentssamarbeidet februar 1996. Hvor star vi, hvor gar vi nu?" [Barents Cooperation February 1996. Where Do We Stand and Where Are We Heading?] Presentation at Pax Nordica, Umea, February 1996.

14. Leo Granberg, "How to Construct a Sea Without Water: Construction and Institutionalization of the Barents Euro-Arctic Region", Paper presented at "Border Regions in Transition", 14-18 June 1997, Sortavala and Joensuu; Jyrki Kakonen, ed. Dreaming of the Barents Region. Interpreting Cooperation in the Euro-Arctic Rim. TAPRI Research Report no. 73, 1996; Ola Tunander "Invention of the Barents Region: Overcoming the East-West Divide in the North", in Olav Stokke and Ola Tunander (eds) The Barents Region. Cooperation in Arctic Europe. London: SAGE, 1994, pp. 31-45.

15. Pertti Joenniemi, "The Barents Euro-Arctic Region: On the Restructuring of Northernmost Europe", Paper prepared for the project "Multi-Layered Integration: The Sub-Regional Dimension", Institute for EastWest Studies, New York, February 1997, p. 26.

Sergei Medvedev is a Russian researcher and professor currently working in Helsinki. His writings focus on the Russian state, post-Communism and postmodernity, cultural anthropology and political geography.

Monday, February 23, 2009

umeå hxc

this weekend we played at umeå folk festival. two days of dancing, nyckelharpas, accordions, fiddles and fiddles, beers and tunes. it was amazing to hear music that i have learned being played by others 6 hours north, a confirmation of my experience and education here, being played by young, old, black, white, chilean, slovakian, indian. the afterparty was from 2 am to 8 at the premiere hardcore squat of sweden (where refused and raised fist came from) clumps of fiddlers and players crowded the hallway and sitting room, furiously playing song after tune after beer. i danced polskor and schottis for hours in a dark room papered with hardcore flyers and x's. so funny. 6 hour bus ride back of neck cricks and oranges. today is translation and raw vision.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Saturday, February 14, 2009


sky glider

i have been here for about 6 months now. thankfully, i can't believe it's been that long and that short. yesterday per and i skied to the other side of the lake in old mobile tracks, to the shadow and past the bridge. it was bright blue and sunny, the snow so deep that it reached above my nose when i couldn't balance any longer. we talked about possessiveness. apricot tea and gingerbread hearts warmed our open frozen mouths, and the night was spent with a new bride waltz, sauna, anarchist anthropology, stolen fruit and chocolate.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

strange coincidences

an american-swedish girl whom i have met twice in sweden told me at a party on friday that the "people you may know" section in facebook suggested a girl who was facebook friends with me, and a member of a group for a school in italy that both girls had independently attended. we looked online to see who. she had never met or seen her before. i "know" this "mutual friend" because she is from los angeles and goes to UMASS, part of the 5 college consortium which my school is a part of. she introduced herself to me at a party last year because she had seen me on our (another) mutual friends facebook wall. a girl from florida who i know in sweden knows a girl who i know who is from los angeles who lives in massachusetts because they went to the same program in italy.

terrifying, ridiculous and beautiful.

Monday, February 2, 2009


ice fishing is much more romantic in theory, perhaps worth it when you actually catch something (no dinner tonight!) coffee and moonshine and quick runs helped, but perhaps scared the fishies away. the best part is boring holes in the ice, down to the breaking point. i imagine the pitch lowering as when sawing into a piece of wood until the moment of separation. saturday was magnus' igloo show next to a gigantic frozen waterfall, the applause for the organist, fiddler and girl in braids muffled by 100 pairs of mittens. the lodge was filled with sami scrimshaw and stuffed bears and lynxs, waffles and moose soup, the ice church with see-through sculptures and reindeer skins. monday i wandered out onto the frozen lake surrounded by perfect snowflakes until the ice was black, following patterns of ski crosses, animal toes, other wanderers. took stereo photos but they won't capture the feeling of being alone on a perfect pure white plane.

Monday, January 26, 2009


i have been making lace and apricot thyme bread, falling on hidden ice, reading dot dot dot.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

swedish dance bands

courtesy of http://pics.yemii.com/swedish-dance-bands.html and andrew dorsett.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

a plagiarism of a plagiarism about a plagiarism

The ecstasy of influence:
A plagiarism

By Jonathan Lethem, article from Harpers February 2007

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . .

—John Donne


Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator—marked by her forever—remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I've described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov's novel. Lichberg later became a prominent journalist in the Nazi era, and his youthful works faded from view. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg's tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory? The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Another hypothesis is that Nabokov, knowing Lichberg's tale perfectly well, had set himself to that art of quotation that Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called “higher cribbing.” Literature has always been a crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast. Little of what we admire in Nabokov's Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter. Still: did Nabokov consciously borrow and quote?

“When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.” The line comes from Don Siegel's 1958 film noir, The Lineup, written by Stirling Silliphant. The film still haunts revival houses, likely thanks to Eli Wallach's blazing portrayal of a sociopathic hit man and to Siegel's long, sturdy auteurist career. Yet what were those words worth—to Siegel, or Silliphant, or their audience—in 1958? And again: what was the line worth when Bob Dylan heard it (presumably in some Greenwich Village repertory cinema), cleaned it up a little, and inserted it into “Absolutely Sweet Marie”? What are they worth now, to the culture at large?

Appropriation has always played a key role in Dylan's music. The songwriter has grabbed not only from a panoply of vintage Hollywood films but from Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Junichi Saga's Confessions of a Yakuza. He also nabbed the title of Eric Lott's study of minstrelsy for his 2001 album Love and Theft. One imagines Dylan liked the general resonance of the title, in which emotional misdemeanors stalk the sweetness of love, as they do so often in Dylan's songs. Lott's title is, of course, itself a riff on Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel, which famously identifies the literary motif of the interdependence of a white man and a dark man, like Huck and Jim or Ishmael and Queequeg—a series of nested references to Dylan's own appropriating, minstrel-boy self. Dylan's art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture, like the Civil War poetry of the Confederate bard Henry Timrod, resuscitated in lyrics on Dylan's newest record, Modern Times. Dylan's originality and his appropriations are as one.

The same might be said of all art. I realized this forcefully when one day I went looking for the John Donne passage quoted above. I know the lines, I confess, not from a college course but from the movie version of 84, Charing Cross Road with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft. I checked out 84, Charing Cross Road from the library in the hope of finding the Donne passage, but it wasn't in the book. It's alluded to in the play that was adapted from the book, but it isn't reprinted. So I rented the movie again, and there was the passage, read in voice-over by Anthony Hopkins but without attribution. Unfortunately, the line was also abridged so that, when I finally turned to the Web, I found myself searching for the line “all mankind is of one volume” instead of “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.”

My Internet search was initially no more successful than my library search. I had thought that summoning books from the vasty deep was a matter of a few keystrokes, but when I visited the website of the Yale library, I found that most of its books don't yet exist as computer text. As a last-ditch effort I searched the seemingly more obscure phrase “every chapter must be so translated.” The passage I wanted finally came to me, as it turns out, not as part of a scholarly library collection but simply because someone who loves Donne had posted it on his homepage. The lines I sought were from Meditation 17 in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which happens to be the most famous thing Donne ever wrote, containing as it does the line “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” My search had led me from a movie to a book to a play to a website and back to a book. Then again, those words may be as famous as they are only because Hemingway lifted them for his book title.

Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers' texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.


In 1941, on his front porch, Muddy Waters recorded a song for the folklorist Alan Lomax. After singing the song, which he told Lomax was entitled “Country Blues,” Waters described how he came to write it. “I made it on about the eighth of October '38,” Waters said. “I was fixin' a puncture on a car. I had been mistreated by a girl. I just felt blue, and the song fell into my mind and it come to me just like that and I started singing.” Then Lomax, who knew of the Robert Johnson recording called “Walkin' Blues,” asked Waters if there were any other songs that used the same tune. “There's been some blues played like that,” Waters replied. “This song comes from the cotton field and a boy once put a record out—Robert Johnson. He put it out as named ‘Walkin' Blues.' I heard the tune before I heard it on the record. I learned it from Son House.” In nearly one breath, Waters offers five accounts: his own active authorship: he “made it” on a specific date. Then the “passive” explanation: “it come to me just like that.” After Lomax raises the question of influence, Waters, without shame, misgivings, or trepidation, says that he heard a version by Johnson, but that his mentor, Son House, taught it to him. In the middle of that complex genealogy, Waters declares that “this song comes from the cotton field.”

Blues and jazz musicians have long been enabled by a kind of “open source” culture, in which pre-existing melodic fragments and larger musical frameworks are freely reworked. Technology has only multiplied the possibilities; musicians have gained the power to duplicate sounds literally rather than simply approximate them through allusion. In Seventies Jamaica, King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry deconstructed recorded music, using astonishingly primitive pre-digital hardware, creating what they called “versions.” The recombinant nature of their means of production quickly spread to DJs in New York and London. Today an endless, gloriously impure, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of music.

Visual, sound, and text collage—which for many centuries were relatively fugitive traditions (a cento here, a folk pastiche there)—became explosively central to a series of movements in the twentieth century: futurism, cubism, Dada, musique concrète, situationism, pop art, and appropriationism. In fact, collage, the common denominator in that list, might be called the art form of the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first. But forget, for the moment, chronologies, schools, or even centuries. As examples accumulate—Igor Stravinsky's music and Daniel Johnston's, Francis Bacon's paintings and Henry Darger's, the novels of the Oulipo group and of Hannah Crafts (the author who pillaged Dickens's Bleak House to write The Bondwoman's Narrative), as well as cherished texts that become troubling to their admirers after the discovery of their “plagiarized” elements, like Richard Condon's novels or Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons—it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production.

In a courtroom scene from The Simpsons that has since entered into the television canon, an argument over the ownership of the animated characters Itchy and Scratchy rapidly escalates into an existential debate on the very nature of cartoons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!” declares the show's hot-tempered cartoon-producer-within-a-cartoon, Roger Meyers Jr. “You take away our right to steal ideas, where are they going to come from?” If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones—more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths—The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don't strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid's “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, or Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch's life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.

Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one's voice isn't just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing.

What happens when an allusion goes unrecognized? A closer look at The Waste Land may help make this point. The body of Eliot's poem is a vertiginous mélange of quotation, allusion, and “original” writing. When Eliot alludes to Edmund Spenser's “Prothalamion” with the line “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song,” what of readers to whom the poem, never one of Spenser's most popular, is unfamiliar? (Indeed, the Spenser is now known largely because of Eliot's use of it.) Two responses are possible: grant the line to Eliot, or later discover the source and understand the line as plagiarism. Eliot evidenced no small anxiety about these matters; the notes he so carefully added to The Waste Land can be read as a symptom of modernism's contamination anxiety. Taken from this angle, what exactly is postmodernism, except modernism without the anxiety?


The surrealists believed that objects in the world possess a certain but unspecifiable intensity that had been dulled by everyday use and utility. They meant to reanimate this dormant intensity, to bring their minds once again into close contact with the matter that made up their world. André Breton's maxim “Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” is an expression of the belief that simply placing objects in an unexpected context reinvigorates their mysterious qualities.

This “crisis” the surrealists identified was being simultaneously diagnosed by others. Martin Heidegger held that the essence of modernity was found in a certain technological orientation he called “enframing.” This tendency encourages us to see the objects in our world only in terms of how they can serve us or be used by us. The task he identified was to find ways to resituate ourselves vis-à-vis these “objects,” so that we may see them as “things” pulled into relief against the ground of their functionality. Heidegger believed that art had the great potential to reveal the “thingness” of objects.

The surrealists understood that photography and cinema could carry out this reanimating process automatically; the process of framing objects in a lens was often enough to create the charge they sought. Describing the effect, Walter Benjamin drew a comparison between the photographic apparatus and Freud's psychoanalytic methods. Just as Freud's theories “isolated and made analyzable things which had heretofore floated along unnoticed in the broad stream of perception,” the photographic apparatus focuses on “hidden details of familiar objects,” revealing “entirely new structural formations of the subject.”

It's worth noting, then, that early in the history of photography a series of judicial decisions could well have changed the course of that art: courts were asked whether the photographer, amateur or professional, required permission before he could capture and print an image. Was the photographer stealing from the person or building whose photograph he shot, pirating something of private and certifiable value? Those early decisions went in favor of the pirates. Just as Walt Disney could take inspiration from Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr., the Brothers Grimm, or the existence of real mice, the photographer should be free to capture an image without compensating the source. The world that meets our eye through the lens of a camera was judged to be, with minor exceptions, a sort of public commons, where a cat may look at a king.

Novelists may glance at the stuff of the world too, but we sometimes get called to task for it. For those whose ganglia were formed pre-TV, the mimetic deployment of pop-culture icons seems at best an annoying tic and at worst a dangerous vapidity that compromises fiction's seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic Always, where it ought to reside. In a graduate workshop I briefly passed through, a certain gray eminence tried to convince us that a literary story should always eschew “any feature which serves to date it” because “serious fiction must be Timeless.” When we protested that, in his own well-known work, characters moved about electrically lit rooms, drove cars, and spoke not Anglo-Saxon but postwar English—and further, that fiction he'd himself ratified as great, such as Dickens, was liberally strewn with innately topical, commercial, and timebound references—he impatiently amended his proscription to those explicit references that would date a story in the “frivolous Now.” When pressed, he said of course he meant the “trendy mass-popular-media” reference. Here, transgenerational discourse broke down.

I was born in 1964; I grew up watching Captain Kangaroo, moon landings, zillions of TV ads, the Banana Splits, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I was born with words in my mouth—“Band-Aid,” “Q-tip,” “Xerox”—object-names as fixed and eternal in my logosphere as “taxicab” and “toothbrush.” The world is a home littered with pop-culture products and their emblems. I also came of age swamped by parodies that stood for originals yet mysterious to me—I knew Monkees before Beatles, Belmondo before Bogart, and “remember” the movie Summer of '42 from a Mad magazine satire, though I've still never seen the film itself. I'm not alone in having been born backward into an incoherent realm of texts, products, and images, the commercial and cultural environment with which we've both supplemented and blotted out our natural world. I can no more claim it as “mine” than the sidewalks and forests of the world, yet I do dwell in it, and for me to stand a chance as either artist or citizen, I'd probably better be permitted to name it.

Consider Walker Percy's The Moviegoer:

Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a YouTube rebroadcast of the Berlin Wall's fall—i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar—it's not a surprise that some of today's most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in reimagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what's taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights.

Whatever charge of tastelessness or trademark violation may be attached to the artistic appropriation of the media environment in which we swim, the alternative—to flinch, or tiptoe away into some ivory tower of irrelevance—is far worse. We're surrounded by signs; our imperative is to ignore none of them.


The idea that culture can be property—intellectual property—is used to justify everything from attempts to force the Girl Scouts to pay royalties for singing songs around campfires to the infringement suit brought by the estate of Margaret Mitchell against the publishers of Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone. Corporations like Celera Genomics have filed for patents for human genes, while the Recording Industry Association of America has sued music downloaders for copyright infringement, reaching out-of-court settlements for thousands of dollars with defendants as young as twelve. ASCAP bleeds fees from shop owners who play background music in their stores; students and scholars are shamed from placing texts facedown on photocopy machines. At the same time, copyright is revered by most established writers and artists as a birthright and bulwark, the source of nurture for their infinitely fragile practices in a rapacious world. Plagiarism and piracy, after all, are the monsters we working artists are taught to dread, as they roam the woods surrounding our tiny preserves of regard and remuneration.

A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense. In this regard, few of us question the contemporary construction of copyright. It is taken as a law, both in the sense of a universally recognizable moral absolute, like the law against murder, and as naturally inherent in our world, like the law of gravity. In fact, it is neither. Rather, copyright is an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation.

Thomas Jefferson, for one, considered copyright a necessary evil: he favored providing just enough incentive to create, nothing more, and thereafter allowing ideas to flow freely, as nature intended. His conception of copyright was enshrined in the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This was a balancing act between creators and society as a whole; second comers might do a much better job than the originator with the original idea.

But Jefferson's vision has not fared well, has in fact been steadily eroded by those who view the culture as a market in which everything of value should be owned by someone or other. The distinctive feature of modern American copyright law is its almost limitless bloating—its expansion in both scope and duration. With no registration requirement, every creative act in a tangible medium is now subject to copyright protection: your email to your child or your child's finger painting, both are automatically protected. The first Congress to grant copyright gave authors an initial term of fourteen years, which could be renewed for another fourteen if the author still lived. The current term is the life of the author plus seventy years. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that each time Mickey Mouse is about to fall into the public domain, the mouse's copyright term is extended.

Even as the law becomes more restrictive, technology is exposing those restrictions as bizarre and arbitrary. When old laws fixed on reproduction as the compensable (or actionable) unit, it wasn't because there was anything fundamentally invasive of an author's rights in the making of a copy. Rather it was because copies were once easy to find and count, so they made a useful benchmark for deciding when an owner's rights had been invaded. In the contemporary world, though, the act of “copying” is in no meaningful sense equivalent to an infringement—we make a copy every time we accept an emailed text, or send or forward one—and is impossible anymore to regulate or even describe.

At the movies, my entertainment is sometimes lately preceded by a dire trailer, produced by the lobbying group called the Motion Picture Association of America, in which the purchasing of a bootleg copy of a Hollywood film is compared to the theft of a car or a handbag—and, as the bullying supertitles remind us, “You wouldn't steal a handbag!” This conflation forms an incitement to quit thinking. If I were to tell you that pirating DVDs or downloading music is in no way different from loaning a friend a book, my own arguments would be as ethically bankrupt as the MPAA's. The truth lies somewhere in the vast gray area between these two overstated positions. For a car or a handbag, once stolen, no longer is available to its owner, while the appropriation of an article of “intellectual property” leaves the original untouched. As Jefferson wrote, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Yet industries of cultural capital, who profit not from creating but from distributing, see the sale of culture as a zero-sum game. The piano-roll publishers fear the record companies, who fear the cassette-tape manufacturers, who fear the online vendors, who fear whoever else is next in line to profit most quickly from the intangible and infinitely reproducible fruits of an artist's labor. It has been the same in every industry and with every technological innovation. Jack Valenti, speaking for the MPAA: “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.”

Thinking clearly sometimes requires unbraiding our language. The word “copyright” may eventually seem as dubious in its embedded purposes as “family values,” “globalization,” and, sure, “intellectual property.” Copyright is a “right” in no absolute sense; it is a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results. So let's try calling it that—not a right but a monopoly on use, a “usemonopoly”—and then consider how the rapacious expansion of monopoly rights has always been counter to the public interest, no matter if it is Andrew Carnegie controlling the price of steel or Walt Disney managing the fate of his mouse. Whether the monopolizing beneficiary is a living artist or some artist's heirs or some corporation's shareholders, the loser is the community, including living artists who might make splendid use of a healthy public domain.


A few years ago someone brought me a strange gift, purchased at MoMA's downtown design store: a copy of my own first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music, expertly cut into the contours of a pistol. The object was the work of Robert The, an artist whose specialty is the reincarnation of everyday materials. I regard my first book as an old friend, one who never fails to remind me of the spirit with which I entered into this game of art and commerce—that to be allowed to insert the materials of my imagination onto the shelves of bookstores and into the minds of readers (if only a handful) was a wild privilege. I was paid $6,000 for three years of writing, but at the time I'd have happily published the results for nothing. Now my old friend had come home in a new form, one I was unlikely to have imagined for it myself. The gun-book wasn't readable, exactly, but I couldn't take offense at that. The fertile spirit of stray connection this appropriated object conveyed back to me—the strange beauty of its second use—was a reward for being a published writer I could never have fathomed in advance. And the world makes room for both my novel and Robert The's gun-book. There's no need to choose between the two.

In the first life of creative property, if the creator is lucky, the content is sold. After the commercial life has ended, our tradition supports a second life as well. A newspaper is delivered to a doorstep, and the next day wraps fish or builds an archive. Most books fall out of print after one year, yet even within that period they can be sold in used bookstores and stored in libraries, quoted in reviews, parodied in magazines, described in conversations, and plundered for costumes for kids to wear on Halloween. The demarcation between various possible uses is beautifully graded and hard to define, the more so as artifacts distill into and repercuss through the realm of culture into which they've been entered, the more so as they engage the receptive minds for whom they were presumably intended.

Active reading is an impertinent raid on the literary preserve. Readers are like nomads, poaching their way across fields they do not own—artists are no more able to control the imaginations of their audiences than the culture industry is able to control second uses of its artifacts. In the children's classic The Velveteen Rabbit, the old Skin Horse offers the Rabbit a lecture on the practice of textual poaching. The value of a new toy lies not it its material qualities (not “having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle”), the Skin Horse explains, but rather in how the toy is used. “Real isn't how you are made. . . . It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” The Rabbit is fearful, recognizing that consumer goods don't become “real” without being actively reworked: “Does it hurt?” Reassuring him, the Skin Horse says: “It doesn't happen all at once. . . . You become. It takes a long time. . . . Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” Seen from the perspective of the toymaker, the Velveteen Rabbit's loose joints and missing eyes represent vandalism, signs of misuse and rough treatment; for others, these are marks of its loving use.

Artists and their surrogates who fall into the trap of seeking recompense for every possible second use end up attacking their own best audience members for the crime of exalting and enshrining their work. The Recording Industry Association of America prosecuting their own record-buying public makes as little sense as the novelists who bristle at autographing used copies of their books for collectors. And artists, or their heirs, who fall into the trap of attacking the collagists and satirists and digital samplers of their work are attacking the next generation of creators for the crime of being influenced, for the crime of responding with the same mixture of intoxication, resentment, lust, and glee that characterizes all artistic successors. By doing so they make the world smaller, betraying what seems to me the primary motivation for participating in the world of culture in the first place: to make the world larger.


The Walt Disney Company has drawn an astonishing catalogue from the work of others: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, Song of the South, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Robin Hood, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, and, alas, Treasure Planet, a legacy of cultural sampling that Shakespeare, or De La Soul, could get behind. Yet Disney's protectorate of lobbyists has policed the resulting cache of cultural materials as vigilantly as if it were Fort Knox—threatening legal action, for instance, against the artist Dennis Oppenheim for the use of Disney characters in a sculpture, and prohibiting the scholar Holly Crawford from using any Disney-related images—including artwork by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Oldenburg, and others—in her monograph Attached to the Mouse: Disney and Contemporary Art.

This peculiar and specific act—the enclosure of commonwealth culture for the benefit of a sole or corporate owner—is close kin to what could be called imperial plagiarism, the free use of Third World or “primitive” artworks and styles by more privileged (and better-paid) artists. Think of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, or some of the albums of Paul Simon or David Byrne: even without violating copyright, those creators have sometimes come in for a certain skepticism when the extent of their outsourcing became evident. And, as when Led Zeppelin found themselves sued for back royalties by the bluesman Willie Dixon, the act can occasionally be an expensive one. To live outside the law, you must be honest: perhaps it was this, in part, that spurred David Byrne and Brian Eno to recently launch a “remix” website, where anyone can download easily disassembled versions of two songs from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album reliant on vernacular speech sampled from a host of sources. Perhaps it also explains why Bob Dylan has never refused a request for a sample.

Kenneth Koch once said, “I'm a writer who likes to be influenced.” It was a charming confession, and a rare one. For so many artists, the act of creativity is intended as a Napoleonic imposition of one's uniqueness upon the universe—après moi le déluge of copycats! And for every James Joyce or Woody Guthrie or Martin Luther King Jr., or Walt Disney, who gathered a constellation of voices in his work, there may seem to be some corporation or literary estate eager to stopper the bottle: cultural debts flow in, but they don't flow out. We might call this tendency “source hypocrisy.” Or we could name it after the most pernicious source hypocrites of all time: Disnial.


My reader may, understandably, be on the verge of crying, “Communist!” A large, diverse society cannot survive without property; a large, diverse, and modern society cannot flourish without some form of intellectual property. But it takes little reflection to grasp that there is ample value that the term “property” doesn't capture. And works of art exist simultaneously in two economies, a market economy and a gift economy.

The cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection. I go into a hardware store, pay the man for a hacksaw blade, and walk out. I may never see him again. The disconnectedness is, in fact, a virtue of the commodity mode. We don't want to be bothered, and if the clerk always wants to chat about the family, I'll shop elsewhere. I just want a hacksaw blade. But a gift makes a connection. There are many examples, the candy or cigarette offered to a stranger who shares a seat on the plane, the few words that indicate goodwill between passengers on the late-night bus. These tokens establish the simplest bonds of social life, but the model they offer may be extended to the most complicated of unions—marriage, parenthood, mentorship. If a value is placed on these (often essentially unequal) exchanges, they degenerate into something else.

Yet one of the more difficult things to comprehend is that the gift economies—like those that sustain open-source software—coexist so naturally with the market. It is precisely this doubleness in art practices that we must identify, ratify, and enshrine in our lives as participants in culture, either as “producers” or “consumers.” Art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—is received as a gift is received. Even if we've paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price. The daily commerce of our lives proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift conveys an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration.

The way we treat a thing can change its nature, though. Religions often prohibit the sale of sacred objects, the implication being that their sanctity is lost if they are bought and sold. We consider it unacceptable to sell sex, babies, body organs, legal rights, and votes. The idea that something should never be commodified is generally known as inalienability or unalienability—a concept most famously expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the phrase “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . .” A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art. But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. I don't maintain that art can't be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising. This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift; i.e., it's never really for the person it's directed at.

The power of a gift economy remains difficult for the empiricists of our market culture to understand. In our times, the rhetoric of the market presumes that everything should be and can be appropriately bought, sold, and owned—a tide of alienation lapping daily at the dwindling redoubt of the unalienable. In free-market theory, an intervention to halt propertization is considered “paternalistic,” because it inhibits the free action of the citizen, now reposited as a “potential entrepreneur.” Of course, in the real world, we know that child-rearing, family life, education, socialization, sexuality, political life, and many other basic human activities require insulation from market forces. In fact, paying for many of these things can ruin them. We may be willing to peek at Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire or an eBay auction of the ova of fashion models, but only to reassure ourselves that some things are still beneath our standards of dignity.

What's remarkable about gift economies is that they can flourish in the most unlikely places—in run-down neighborhoods, on the Internet, in scientific communities, and among members of Alcoholics Anonymous. A classic example is commercial blood systems, which generally produce blood supplies of lower safety, purity, and potency than volunteer systems. A gift economy may be superior when it comes to maintaining a group's commitment to certain extra-market values.


Another way of understanding the presence of gift economies—which dwell like ghosts in the commercial machine—is in the sense of a public commons. A commons, of course, is anything like the streets over which we drive, the skies through which we pilot airplanes, or the public parks or beaches on which we dally. A commons belongs to everyone and no one, and its use is controlled only by common consent. A commons describes resources like the body of ancient music drawn on by composers and folk musicians alike, rather than the commodities, like “Happy Birthday to You,” for which ASCAP, 114 years after it was written, continues to collect a fee. Einstein's theory of relativity is a commons. Writings in the public domain are a commons. Gossip about celebrities is a commons. The silence in a movie theater is a transitory commons, impossibly fragile, treasured by those who crave it, and constructed as a mutual gift by those who compose it.

The world of art and culture is a vast commons, one that is salted through with zones of utter commerce yet remains gloriously immune to any overall commodification. The closest resemblance is to the commons of a language: altered by every contributor, expanded by even the most passive user. That a language is a commons doesn't mean that the community owns it; rather it belongs between people, possessed by no one, not even by society as a whole.

Nearly any commons, though, can be encroached upon, partitioned, enclosed. The American commons include tangible assets such as public forests and minerals, intangible wealth such as copyrights and patents, critical infrastructures such as the Internet and government research, and cultural resources such as the broadcast airwaves and public spaces. They include resources we've paid for as taxpayers and inherited from previous generations. They're not just an inventory of marketable assets; they're social institutions and cultural traditions that define us as Americans and enliven us as human beings. Some invasions of the commons are sanctioned because we can no longer muster a spirited commitment to the public sector. The abuse goes unnoticed because the theft of the commons is seen in glimpses, not in panorama. We may occasionally see a former wetland paved; we may hear about the breakthrough cancer drug that tax dollars helped develop, the rights to which pharmaceutical companies acquired for a song. The larger movement goes too much unremarked. The notion of a commons of cultural materials goes more or less unnamed.

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.


Artists and intellectuals despondent over the prospects for originality can take heart from a phenomenon identified about twenty years ago by Don Swanson, a library scientist at the University of Chicago. He called it “undiscovered public knowledge.” Swanson showed that standing problems in medical research may be significantly addressed, perhaps even solved, simply by systematically surveying the scientific literature. Left to its own devices, research tends to become more specialized and abstracted from the real-world problems that motivated it and to which it remains relevant. This suggests that such a problem may be tackled effectively not by commissioning more research but by assuming that most or all of the solution can already be found in various scientific journals, waiting to be assembled by someone willing to read across specialties. Swanson himself did this in the case of Raynaud's syndrome, a disease that causes the fingers of young women to become numb. His finding is especially striking—perhaps even scandalous—because it happened in the ever-expanding biomedical sciences.

Undiscovered public knowledge emboldens us to question the extreme claims to originality made in press releases and publishers' notices: Is an intellectual or creative offering truly novel, or have we just forgotten a worthy precursor? Does solving certain scientific problems really require massive additional funding, or could a computerized search engine, creatively deployed, do the same job more quickly and cheaply? Lastly, does our appetite for creative vitality require the violence and exasperation of another avant-garde, with its wearisome killing-the-father imperatives, or might we be better off ratifying the ecstasy of influence—and deepening our willingness to understand the commonality and timelessness of the methods and motifs available to artists?


A few years ago, the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced a retrospective of the works of Dariush Mehrjui, then a fresh enthusiasm of mine. Mehrjui is one of Iran's finest filmmakers, and the only one whose subject was personal relationships among the upper-middle-class intelligentsia. Needless to say, opportunities to view his films were—and remain—rare indeed. I headed uptown for one, an adaptation of J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, titled Pari, only to discover at the door of the Walter Reade Theater that the screening had been canceled: its announcement had brought threat of a lawsuit down on the Film Society. True, these were Salinger's rights under the law. Yet why would he care that some obscure Iranian filmmaker had paid him homage with a meditation on his heroine? Would it have damaged his book or robbed him of some crucial remuneration had the screening been permitted? The fertile spirit of stray connection—one stretching across what is presently seen as the direst of international breaches—had in this case been snuffed out. The cold, undead hand of one of my childhood literary heroes had reached out from its New Hampshire redoubt to arrest my present-day curiosity.

A few assertions, then:

Any text that has infiltrated the common mind to the extent of Gone With the Wind or Lolita or Ulysses inexorably joins the language of culture. A map-turned-to-landscape, it has moved to a place beyond enclosure or control. The authors and their heirs should consider the subsequent parodies, refractions, quotations, and revisions an honor, or at least the price of a rare success.

A corporation that has imposed an inescapable notion—Mickey Mouse, Band-Aid—on the cultural language should pay a similar price.

The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors but “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate.

Contemporary copyright, trademark, and patent law is presently corrupted. The case for perpetual copyright is a denial of the essential gift-aspect of the creative act. Arguments in its favor are as un-American as those for the repeal of the estate tax.

Art is sourced. Apprentices graze in the field of culture.

Digital sampling is an art method like any other, neutral in itself.

Despite hand-wringing at each technological turn—radio, the Internet—the future will be much like the past. Artists will sell some things but also give some things away. Change may be troubling for those who crave less ambiguity, but the life of an artist has never been filled with certainty.

The dream of a perfect systematic remuneration is nonsense. I pay rent with the price my words bring when published in glossy magazines and at the same moment offer them for almost nothing to impoverished literary quarterlies, or speak them for free into the air in a radio interview. So what are they worth? What would they be worth if some future Dylan worked them into a song? Should I care to make such a thing impossible?

Any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The citations that go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas. The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks?

Artists and writers—and our advocates, our guilds and agents—too often subscribe to implicit claims of originality that do injury to these truths. And we too often, as hucksters and bean counters in the tiny enterprises of our selves, act to spite the gift portion of our privileged roles. People live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift. If we devalue and obscure the gift-economy function of our art practices, we turn our works into nothing more than advertisements for themselves. We may console ourselves that our lust for subsidiary rights in virtual perpetuity is some heroic counter to rapacious corporate interests. But the truth is that with artists pulling on one side and corporations pulling on the other, the loser is the collective public imagination from which we were nourished in the first place, and whose existence as the ultimate repository of our offerings makes the work worth doing in the first place.

As a novelist, I'm a cork on the ocean of story, a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I'll be blown away. For the moment I'm grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.