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.

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