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Monday, April 30, 2012

Sustainability Unbound (3): Collective Being

    Lewis Hyde gave the second presentation at the Sustainability Unbound symposium last month at the University of New Hampshire. He titled it "Cultural Commons and Collective Being." He began by saying how reviewers had misunderstood his recent book on copyright, intellectual property, and the cultural commons, which embraces more than the digital commons--it represents cultural heritage, music included. Copyright is in the news these days because record companies and film companies want to copyright works almost forever, and not too long ago US copyright law changed to accommodate them. At the same time, many young people think that music and movies should be freely available to them--they resent having to pay high prices for music, textbooks, videos, and so forth. Without copyright, of course, this intellectual property could be freely copied. That is what copyright is, after all--the right to copy.

    Some reviewers pointed to the fact that Hyde had copyrighted his book--so how could he advocate for a cultural commons? This was inconsistent at best, hypocritical at worst. Other reviewers thought he was strong for copyright. He wanted to be sure we knew where he stood. Deflecting criticism, dismissing incompetent reviewers, and anticipating the details of a later argument, Hyde proclaimed his agreement with the original US copyright law, a renewable 26-year term, and then the product passes into the public domain--no copyright. Fair enough, but as we shall soon see, not a solution to the problem of individual versus collective rights. What did he mean, then, by collective being? This seemed more promising.

    To digress a moment, authors hope for understanding reviews. Sometimes it feels more rewarding to be understood than praised. When my first book was published, in 1977, I received high praise in a review from a renowned scholar of African American music, but she praised it for reasons of her own--reasons that had not occurred to me. It was her agenda, not mine. I would call that a favorable review but not a sympathetic one. I have told this story many times since then. The details are not important here. No one is more interested in the reviews of one's own work than the author, despite frequent author claims to the contrary. "I never read the reviews," they say. "Critics--they are like crickets!" says another author. Don't believe them.

    I was less interested in copyright law and more interested in Hyde's exploration of collective being, perhaps because it was a good and (for me) a new way of thinking about how tradition works its way into a person and what that person says and does. (My agenda--not his.) Ownership of intangible cultural property--heritage--is problematic for many reasons, not least among which is the question whether a single person can claim ownership rights to something that is also arguably the end-product of a group, even if that group has been internalized and the immediate product is made by an individual. Despite claims of individual authorship it can be argued persuasively that traditional music is a product of the community, over time--the melody comes from the common tune stock and proceeds by the compositional grammar that the community of composers has developed over the years. Lyrics, arguably, may also be traditional in subject and form and even particular phrases that recur in various songs--"Woke up this morning," for instance, in blues music. The result is a combination, as Eliot wrote, of tradition with the individual talent.

    Back in 1981, I worked a couple of weeks every year for the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts. We were discussing whether to single out a particular individual for one of the first folk heritage awards. She was an exemplary singer of ballads from a particular part of North Carolina--Beech Mountain--where many generations of singers had preserved this traditional song style and repertoire. My colleague Dan Paterson argued against awarding the honor to any one individual. Not only was this a collective tradition with many fine representative singers, but singling out one singer would elevate individuals to a role that the community (let alone those individual singers) did not consider appropriate. Turning the individual singer into a celebrity within her community would transform the community's view of the tradition. It would take it in the direction of individual property and commodity and away from the commons. It was best, in such a case, not to make the award to an individual, Dan argued--perhaps the entire community could be honored? But it couldn't; the rules were that these awards must go to individuals.

    Hyde's notion of collective being bears on these issues. He came at it by questioning individual ownership of intellectual property when the invention or creation was really the result of a group effort, either explicitly so, or when the inventor or creator relied a good deal on the help of others--"stood on the shoulders of giants," as Newton wrote. He went on to point out that in the days when American copyright law was being written, certain of the founding fathers had no use for it at all. Franklin, for example, deliberately did not patent the Franklin woodstove, a more efficient kind of heat source than the usual fireplace, though not as heat-efficient as today's airtight wood stove. That is, Franklin knew he might have patented it and earned money from it, but he had already enough for his needs, and thought that the stove ought to serve humankind, not himself. Franklin is also credited as the discoverer of electricity in lightning--who doesn't recall stories about Franklin and his kite? But what is not so well known is that Franklin did his experiments as part of a group of amateur scientists, and always gave the credit to the group, not to himself.

    Franklin's creative or inventive self, therefore, was not an individual self but a kind of collective being; as such, claims for patents or copyrights from individuals were inappropriate at best and dishonest at worst. Franklin understood the difference and refused to profit from work that he knew was collective. Think further, then, of other claims concerning intellectual property--how many of these are collective in Franklin's sense? What is invented out of whole cloth? (Of half cloth?) Hyde's question strikes at the heart of intellectual property and copyright law in the same way that tradition overrides individual talent in the cultural production of intangible heritage such as music. This way of thinking was not new to me, but the context--Franklin and the founding generation and their ideas about copyright law (they did not all share Franklin's view, of course)--was new and helpful in extending the reach of tradition into the idea of collective being.

    Finally, like tradition, collective being strikes me as superior to the critique of the individual self provided by cultural theory and post-structuralist thought. Does the individual self exist as an inner self, a personality, an authentic being, what one thinks of in saying that one is "true to oneself?" Or, as many cultural theorists claim, are selves socially constructed, with multiple, emergent, and situationally-appropriate identities? Are selves (in the most pessimistic formulation) chiefly the product of ideologies from without--capitalism, marxism, sexism, born-again Christianity, you name it? Collective being, along with tradition, combined with individual agency, is a more hopeful way to conceive of the place of the self in sustainability.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sustainability Unbound (2)


         The first presentation at the “Sustainability Unbound” symposium, on March 21, offered a perspective from political philosophy. This was a welcome change as it proceeded from a set of assumptions concerning sustainability that I had not been paying much attention to.

         In asking how might a sustainable world be brought about, Melissa Lane, a professor of politics from Princeton, did not concern herself with diminishing natural resources, limits to growth, diversity, interconnectedness, management, social engineering, or stewardship. Instead, as one would expect, she focused on  how citizens could effect a sustainable world through political action. In her discipline of political science, this is a problem of individual agency. Why do people become political actors? Why do they not? A major obstacle to democratic political participation and action is that citizens do not think that they can make a difference. The “rational choice theory” that dominated political science in the previous century posited that under those conditions the sensible choice was not to waste one’s time in political participation. Citizens need a reason to participate, despite ignorance of how others may act, and despite the possibility that their actions may not make a difference. Rejecting rational choice theory, Lane proposed that citizens act based on who they think they are, not how they think others will behave. In short, the reasons for political participation come from one’s conception of one’s self. Lane went on to develop what she called a theory of “exemplarity” based on political action arising from self-conception. The exemplary self is a politically active agent who sets an example for others. She mentioned Gandhi and Emerson as exemplars. Although I have some reservations about Emerson here, Gandhi as exemplar makes perfect sense to me, as would Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other leaders.

         Until I heard Lane, I hadn’t been thinking about music and sustainability in terms of political action, but in terms of cultural policy instead. To be sure, the cultural policy I have in mind involves community partnerships, which is a form of bottom-up political action; but Lane’s talk was cast in more traditional terms, with political participation, public discussion and the vote as cornerstones. No cultural policy would have staying power without general public assent. The multicultural ideology that underlay the diversity initiatives in traditional and folk arts presentations in the US beginning in the 1960s will not endure if the US continues its movement—led by the Supreme Court, at the moment—against cultural equity and diversity. This conservative turn may be seen as the result of a concerted political effort among the Right since the Reagan era, with the Tea Party and its influence on the current Congressional makeup, particularly in the House, the latest manifestation. One may ask who are the exemplars for this movement?

         Certainly not Gandhi or Emerson. Reagan is one, to be sure; but perhaps the chief exemplars are the conservatives among the nation’s founders—the Federalists. Yet, for the Tea Party, all the founders are exemplars, insofar as they look to the American Constitution for guidance and truth. The parallels with biblical fundamentalists are striking: the Constitution becomes the Bible. Here exemplarity may become a little more complicated, insofar as it’s tied not only to particular founders (Washington, Hamilton, Franklin, Madison, and so on) but to a strict construction of a written document. The Constitution itself becomes an exemplar and its spirit lives within today's conservative political actor. In this way a particular construction of a document helps to construct a conservative self whose political action is based not on rational choice but on self-conception.

         I think it’s important to understand that the self which acts is not the Emersonian “aboriginal self” but, rather, an ideologically constructed one. Lane had pointed to Emerson an exemplar. For the Concord Transcendentalists, surely, he was, though when I think of political action among his cohort I think of Thoreau willingly going to jail for his beliefs and writing his influential essay on non-violent resistance, "Civil Disobedience." Emerson was a writer and lecturer, not a political actor; he believed in civil society, whereas Thoreau did not. Lane considered Emerson an exemplar in an additional sense, for he famously wrote about the self in his essay "Self-Reliance," a landmark in American intellectual thought; and self-reliance is key to Lane's explanation of political action based not on "rational choice" but on an individual's self-conception.

          Here, as I told Lane afterward when we had an opportunity to discuss her presentation, I wished she had not depended on Emerson's philosophy. His radical conclusions about one’s best and original self as an innocent, instinctive, uncorrupted (by civilization) single entity, do not (in my view, at least) provide a good foundation for Lane's exemplarity theory. Nor, of course, would a Freudian self be helpful here. Modern conceptions stress the social and ideological construction of the self, along with multiple, layered, and situational identities within a single human being. In that regard, Lewis Hyde (another one of the presenters at this symposium) had much to say about a “collective self,” quite in contrast to Emerson’s concept of individual self-reliance, and more in keeping with my own notions of the way traditions “text” the self. (See Jeff Todd Titon, “Text,” in Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, ed. Burt Feintuch [University of Illinois Press, 2003]). It occurs to me now to ask whether political scientists posit a "political self" much as economists construct an ideal type of "economic man." This political self would be an independent agent, a political actor, whether choosing not to act (as a result of rational choice theory) or choosing to act based on a conception of who one is. If the "sustainability unbound" conversation continues as we all hope it will, this may be one of the questions discussed.