November 24, 2008
The Gift, The Commons, The Republic
Thanks to a timely permalinking intervention, I caught a NYTmag story from the 16th that I would have missed, about Lewis Hyde and crafting a new notion of copyright. Half-profile, half-summary, it wanders a lot over its five pages, but has great paragraphs like this one:
Thinker-politicians like Jefferson, Adams and Madison were just as familiar as we are with the metaphor that likens created work to physical property, especially to a landed estate. But they thought of that landed estate in a new way — as the basis of a republic. An American’s land was his own — he owed allegiance to no sovereign — but his ownership imposed on him an almost sacred moral requirement to contribute to the public good. According to Hyde, this ethic of “civic republicanism” was the ideological engine that drove the founders’ conception of intellectual property, and to his mind, it undercuts the ethic of “commercial republicanism” that dominates our current conception of it. Our right to property is not absolute; our possessions are held in trust, as it were. Seen through the prism of early civic Republicanism, Hyde asks, what might the creative self look like? Do we imagine that self as “solitary and self-made”? Or as “collective, common and interdependent”?
A lot of the article deals with Hyde’s book The Gift (which used to be subtitled Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property but now seems to be Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World — guess which one sells better). The Gift really is a terrific book, and the two subtitles give you a sense of its range — half of it tries to articulate something of the resistance of art to ordinary money exchange, and half is packed with crazy, brilliant chapters about things Ezra Pound’s harebrained schemes to use vegetables for money. Totally worth a read.