a Free Radical Radio original writing.
The marketplace of ideas, like any marketplace, is fit only for looting.
We have all been taught from our youth that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Whenever a child has an exciting idea, an older person is quick to point out either that this idea has been tried before and didn’t work, or that someone else not only has already had the idea but also has developed and expounded upon it to greater lengths than the child ever could. “Learn and choose from the ideas and beliefs already in circulation, rather than seeking to develop and arrange your own,” seems to be the message, and this message is sent clearly by the methods of “instruction” used in both public and private schools throughout the West.
Despite this common attitude, or perhaps because of it, we are very possessive of our ideas. The concept of “intellectual property” is ingrained in the collective psychosis much deeper than the concept of material property. Plenty of thinkers have appeared who have asserted that “property is theft” in regard to real estate and other physical capital, but few have dared to make similar statements about their own ideas. Even the most notoriously “radical” thinkers have still proudly claimed their ideas as, first and foremost, their ideas.
Consequently, little distinction is made between the thinkers and their thoughts. Students of philosophy will study the philosophy of Descartes, students of economics will study Marx-ism, students of art will study the paintings of Dali. At worst, the cult of personality that develops around famous thinkers prevents any useful consideration of their ideas or artwork; hero-worshipping partisans will swear allegiance to a thinker and all his thoughts, while others who have some justified or unjustified objection to the conceiver of the ideas will generally have a difficult time not being prejudiced against the ideas themselves. At best, this emphasis upon the “author-owner” in the consideration of propositions or artwork is merely irrelevant to the worth of the actual propositions or artwork, even if the stories about the individual in question are interesting and can encourage creative thinking by themselves.
The very assumptions behind the concept of “intellectual property” require more attention than we have given them. The factors that affect the words and deeds of an individual are many and varied, not the least of them being her social-cultural climate and the input of other individuals. To say that any idea has its sole origins in the being of one individual man or woman is to grossly oversimplify. But we are so accustomed to claiming items and objects for ourselves, and to being forced to accept similar claims from others, in the cutthroat competition to acquire and dominate (before we are acquired and dominated) that is life in a market economy, that it seems natural to do the same with ideas. Certainly there must be other ways of thinking about the origins and ownership of ideas that warrant consideration. . . for our present approach does more than merely distract from the ideas.
Our tradition of recognizing “intellectual property rights” is dangerous in that it results in the deification of the publicly recognized “thinker” and “artist” at the expense of everyone else. When ideas are always associated with proper names (and always the same proper names, in point of fact), this suggests that thinking and creating are special skills that belong to a select few individuals. For example, the glorification of the “artist” in our culture, which includes the stereotyping of artists as eccentric “visionaries” who exist at the edge (the “avant garde”) of society, encourages people to believe that artists are significantly and fundamentally different from other human beings. Actually, anyone can be an artist, and everyone is, to some extent; being able to act creatively is a crucial element of human happiness. But when we are led to believe that being creative and thinking critically are talents which only a few individuals possess, those of us who are not fortunate enough to be christened “artists” or “philosophers” by our communities will not make much effort to develop these abilities. Consequently we will be dependent upon others for many of our ideas, and will have to be content as spectators of the creative work of others—and we will feel alienated and unsatisfied.
Another incidental drawback of our association of ideas with specific individuals is that it promotes the acceptance of these ideas in their original form. The students who learn the philosophy of Descartes are encouraged to learn it in its orthodox form, rather than learning the parts which they find relevant to their own lives and interests and combining these parts with ideas from other sources. Out of deference to the original thinker, deified as he is in our tradition, his texts and theories are to be preserved as-is, without ever being put into new forms or contexts which might reveal new insights. Mummified as they are, many theories become completely irrelevant to modern existence, when they could have been given a new lease on life by being treated with a little less reverence.
So we can see that our acceptance of the tradition of “intellectual property” has negative effects upon our endeavors to think critically and learn from our artistic and philosophical heritage. What can we do to address this problem? One of the possible solutions is plagiarism.
Plagiarism and the Modern Anarchist
Plagiarism is an especially effective method of appropriating and reorganizing ideas, and as such it can be a useful tool for a young man or woman looking to encourage new and exciting thinking in others. And it is a method that is anarchist in that it does not recognize “intellectual property” rights but rather strikes out against them and all of the negative effects that recognizing them can have.
Plagiarism focuses attention on content and away from incidental issues, by making the genuine origins of the material impossible to ascertain. Besides, as suggested above, it could be argued that the genuine origins of the contents of most inspirations and propositions are impossible to determine anyway. By signing a new name, or no name at all, to a text, the plagiarizer puts the material in an entirely new context, and this may generate new perspectives and new thinking about the subject that have not appeared before. Plagiarism also makes it possible to combine the best or most relevant parts of a number of texts, thus creating a new text with many of the virtues of the older ones—and some new virtues, as well, since the combination of material from different sources is bound to result in unforeseeable effects and might well result in the unlocking of hidden meanings or possibilities that have been dormant in the texts for years. Finally, above all, plagiarism is the reappropriation of ideas: when an individual plagiarizes a text which those who believe in intellectual property would have held “sacred,” she denies that there is a difference in rank between herself and the thinker she takes from. She takes the thinker’s ideas for herself, to express them as she sees fit, rather than treating the thinker as an authority whose work she is duty-bound to preserve as he intended. She denies, in fact, that there is a fundamental difference between the thinker and the rest of humanity, by appropriating the thinker’s material as the property of humanity.
After all, a good idea should be available to everyone—should belong to everyone—if it really is a good idea. In a society organized with human happiness as the objective, copyright infringement laws and similar restrictions would not hinder the distribution and recombination of ideas. These impediments only make it more difficult for individuals who are looking for challenging and inspiring material to come upon it and share it with others.
So, if there truly is “nothing new under the sun,” take them at their word, and act accordingly. Take what seems relevant to your life and your needs from the theories and doctrines prepared by those who came before you. Don’t be afraid to reproduce word for word those texts which seem perfect to you, so you can share them with others who might also benefit from them. And at the same time, don’t be afraid to plunder ideas from different sources and rearrange them in ways that you find more useful and exciting, more relevant to your own needs and experiences. Seek to create a personally constructed body of critical and creative thought, with elements gathered from as many sources as possible, rather than choosing from one of the prefabricated ideologies that are offered to you. After all, do we have ideas, or do they have us?