I stumbled across David Shield’s Reality Hunger a few days ago at the Tucson Festival of Books. The first thing that caught my attention was the cover, it’s red, its awesome, and then I noticed the quotations on the front.
“A literary battle cry for the creation of a new genre,” — Cathy Alter, The Atlantic
And then I flipped it over:
“Who owns ideas? How clear is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction? Has the velocity of digital culture rendered traditional modes obsolete?”
Okay, totally intrigued, but then the quotations prefacing the text:
“All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.” — Walter Benjamin
I was sold I needed to buy it I bought it.
I took a fantastic class my freshman year here at the University called Thinking Critically About New Media, taught by Professor Charles Bertsch, and it’s my second favorite class I’ve taken thus far (Ornithology reigns supreme). Topics of discussion included Blade Runner, Capek’s R.U.R, Gibson’s Neuromancer, Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Cory Doctorow, and Lawrence Lessig. Basically, it was a class that eerily matched all of my more literary and more existential interests.
Turns out, the book is very similar to the course in themes, just a more literature-based focus.
Which means it’s awesome, and I definitely recommend it.
I write, I draw. I’ve been thinking about digital art and theft and copying for years and years now, trying to get a better handle on my thoughts and form some sort of intelligent perspective about it because I love opensource content, I love collaboration, I love innovative crowd-sourced and crowd-funded capitalism-by-the-people kind of thing (the creative economy?). But nothing makes me want to wring out people’s necks more than the justification of stealing intellectual content.
“To be fair,” this person in my upper level evolution course says when our TA has to address the mass amounts of plagiarism copy-pasting the article for assignments where we summarize the article, “these journal articles are way above our level, and we just don’t want to get the wrong answers.”
(I almost stood up and crawled over the table and strangled this person, but I did not. I was disproportionately offended they insinuated the intellectual capacity of the entire class was not above plagirism.)
(There is the book Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon, which I have yet to read, but a close friend has told me some about. I assume it is sort of relevant, but I cannot say for sure, but I do intend to read it in the future. So there’s that for anyone who is curious.)
Reality Hunger, addresses some of these issues with intellectual property and ownership. Interestingly, Shields makes the case for the dismissal of citations, synthesizing his own words together with other quotations you may not necessarily realize are not his own.
I’m all for remixes and the freedom of information, but it gets touchy once it comes to profiting, because this happens in the digital art community frequently — where a person will steal the work of an artist and draw over it or recolor it or in some cases not manipulate it at all, then sell it on shirts or as prints or etc.
This, I will strangle necks for, but it’s not the same thing as the freedom of information. We’re all talking about people who are interested in transforming and building off of ideas, not looking for shortcuts and quick ways to make money. This is a distinction that doesn’t seem like it can be put into practice — I don’t know how you stop people from being lazy, dumb asses and protect the integrity of content without restraining its freedom.
“Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” — Eliot
“Art is theft.” — Picasso
The work that I create is shaped by many things which I had no control over, things I’ve happened to experience, things other people have said, things that I saw, blah blah blah. But what I do with that jumble of information is something that only I can produce, and that seems to be what creativity is. Just using all the scraps you’ve gathered to make something you kinda sorta wanna say, synthesize your own context for the world that already exists using the fragments that aren’t really yours because they are the world’s.
It’s no secret artists influence one another.
But I don’t understand why it has to be theft.
When someone points to something in my work and says, “that’s a neat idea”, I don’t feel like I need to keep quiet anymore, thought I used to. I can say — yeah, I decided to make this story about sentient plant people because of the Wii game Mushroom Men that happened to have some fantastic music by Les Claypool and it was totally fucking awesome, I’d recommend it but the Wii seems to have died out so alas.
I’m not ashamed that I’ve been inspired by someone else because I know my product is not a copy — it’s a remix, it’s unique, it’s in its own context, and only I could have made it.
I’m constantly impressed by the words and arts and thoughts of people around me. They influence me, make me think new things, make me question things, and I feel a sort of pride to say — yes! I would never have written cyberpunk without playing Deus Ex or watching Blade Runner, they said something to me that I clearly think is worth thinking about and haven’t stopped thinking about since and I’m really fucking glad they did.
“Genius borrows nobly.” — Emerson
(Of course it would be silly to cite the origin of every single possible thing that might come up in a work, there would be a footnote on each page, literary analysis within itself, essay after academic essay, footnotes about footnotes. Horrible.
As genius borrows nobly, genius must cite reasonably.)
(I’m glad Shields’s publishers forced him to add a list of citations at the end. This allowed me to trace interesting lines and concepts back to someone who could tell me more.
Reality Hunger is not a collection, it is a synthesis. So I shamelessly used that bibliography and I have no apologies. I applaud Shields for his book.)
I’ve been struggling with art.
I’ve been trying to create an actual fucking product from the story in my head, conveying it in a way that actually conveys what I want, looking and feeling the way I want — but webcomic didn’t seem to work, novel attempt #1 didn’t seem to work, now I’m on to novel attempt #2, but this time its working.
A few days ago I wrote that essay/ramble, Stop Thinking About Smelling the Roses because I was so stuck on the idea of authenticity:
And then the acknowledgement of okay, I want to make something worthwhile and quality, knowing I enjoy trying to smush in some literary merit and I have fun making that kind of stuff. And then. . . . it starts feeling fake.
I think not long after writing that I stumbled across this article that had some fantastic quotations:
Picasso was once asked if he knew what a painting was going to look like when he started it. He answered, “No, of course not. If I knew, I wouldn’t bother doing it.”
Hungarian photographer Brassaï once asked Picasso whether his ideas come to him “by chance or by design,” and Picasso responded:
“I don’t have a clue. Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.”
“With relatively few exceptions, the novel sacrifices too much for me, on the altar of plot.” — David Sheilds.
Nothing has ever so greatly calmed my angsty, confused, self-proclaimed artist self.
A while ago I decided I could concisely summarize that I was interested in the exploration of concept, context, and syntax and the grotesque and uncomfortable.
I’m not interested in standalone pieces anymore. I don’t want to make disembodied works of art, I want to make zines, art books, something all tied up together and cohesive. I don’t know why. That’s just what I want to do.
I want to keep all the pages of this novel-in-progress together with a binding because it is meant to be a whole. Deconstruct it to build upon it, sure, but I don’t want cropped versions of my art floating around the internet for no damn good reason.
There’s something about stripping the fur off a carcass and using it for clothing that is different than stripping the fur off a carcass and leaving it a few feet off in the dirt.
I’m more excited to write than I have ever been in a very long time because I’m not worried anymore.
Last night a friend wrote to me after reading the first 15k of my novel, kids in high school will read about and analyze this in the future.
I said, if this novel isn’t banned in high schools, I’m not doing it right.
Is it a novel? Is it fiction? (Those words don’t feel right anymore, so I have taken to “monstrosity”.) I don’t know. I don’t care. I don’t give a fuck.
I’m not here to tell a good story.
I’m here to say something no one else can, that no one else has ever said before.