Reflections on Reading Loop, 28/6/2011

Artist Bryan Eccleshall chose Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying as our starting point for discussion this week.

This is the brilliant introduction Bryan gave to the text and some of its key ideas.

Throughout “What Is A Copy?” Marcus Boon engages with the idea of mimesis and reproduction principally by using Buddhist thought as a way of critiquing Platonic ideas surrounding copying as well as, by association, the foundations of Western concepts of Intellectual Property and of Copyright Law.

Boon is Associate Professor of English at York University, Toronto. “In Praise Of Copying” was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.

This short introduction to the first chapter – “What Is A Copy?” – seeks to highlight and summarize the main arguments and concludes with some observations of my own which will, I hope, stimulate discussion. These concluding thoughts have been generated from reading and reflecting on the chapter and form genuine problems  with which I am wrestling.

Boon outlines how complex the idea of copying has become, especially in the light of mass production, using Louis Vuitton bags as his ongoing example. This area is fraught with legal and ethical complexity, further complicated by Louis Vuitton themselves who employed an artist – Takashi Murakami – to collaborate in designing their bags. Boon describes at the outset of the chapter an exhibition in which Murakami displayed authentic Louis Vuitton bags on fake market stalls in a museum, problematizing, or at least highlighting the relation between the Louis Vuitton product and the grey and black market in lookalikes. Murakami also uses  Louis Vuitton motifs and logos in his artworks.

To recap the classical view on copying and mimesis: Plato saw the world as a dim reflection of truth. That truth is located in the ‘ideal’. The perfect circle exists only as an idea and all representations of circle are crude and approximate. In the same way, the Platonic argument runs thus: a Louis Vuitton bag exists first as an idea and then, when actually manufactured, as an approximation of that idea. Aristotle referred to the ‘ideal’ as ‘essence’, which is the phrase that Boon uses. Essence, according to Aristotle, gives shape and purpose to matter. All Louis Vuitton bags, Plato and Aristotle argue, contain only echoes or traces of that Ideal.

Boon summarizes (p18):

“In Plato’s Republic, Socrates presents the argument that everything in this world is an imitation, because it is an echo or reproduction of an idea that exists beyond the realm of sensible forms. A Louis Vuitton bag is the imitation of an idea, in leather and other materials, while a photograph of such a bag is an imitation of an imitation.”

Heidegger, Boon proposes, engages with outward appearance, defining copying as (bottom of p18) “presenting and producing something in a manner which is typical of something else”. If Essence is bound up in the appearance of things, then a good deal of Essence ought to be carried by the painstakingly similar bootleg copies of the bags.

As an aside, we ought to care to notice the language on display here: appear, like, reproduction and so on. The language of mimesis is both eloquent and evasive; speaking of the contingencies and difficulties bound into the very act of copying and its rationale, especially with regard to the legal doublespeak on show when talking of “authentically original imitations of the real originals!”.

But what, Boon argues, if there is no Essence, no Ideal? Before engaging fully with Oriental thought Boon also mentions the work of Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault and Baudrillard (bottom of p23). These thinkers are passed over swiftly as Boon wants to focus on non-Western thought traditions, but they have a place here as they each in their own way critique the classical views of the Ideal and Essence. Each of these thinkers begin to chip away at the idea or importance of the Essence, but Boon  takes the radical step of saying “if we can agree that there are no Platonic essences…”and then seeks to argue the case.

In the view of one form of Buddhist thinking (p27):

“…if objects really did have essences, there could be no copying of them, since that which one would make the copy out of would continue to have its own essence, and could have only this essence, rather than that essence which is implied by the transformed outward appearance that would make it a copy. Similarly, if the essence of a thing were truly fixed, it could not be transported to the copy, and imitation, even as a degradation of the original, would not be possible.

Boon continues (p27):

“[This] … response to the Platonic doctrine of the idea would be to ask the Platonist where one can find the ideal form which supposedly constitutes the real Louis Vuitton bag, and, through the systematic negation of all the possibilities, to demonstrate that it has no existence. We can find nothing but the bags that are around us, some of which we call and designate “Louis Vuitton bags.” This designation is always necessarily a relative one. The Louis Vuitton bag does not know it is a Louis Vuitton bag, even if it has “LV” inscribed on it. To a person from the tenth century, to a dog, or to a bacterium, the designation “Louis Vuitton bag” would be meaningless, as far we know. There is no essence to the bag which guarantees that it is recognizable as such.”

So, the idea of Essence begins to seem less and less tenable to Boon. Despite the vast number of cues displayed by a Louis Vuitton bag – logo, quality of material, workmanship and so on, the status of ‘original’ is always in doubt. Fakes abound and some are, according to Boon and others, indistinguishable from the ‘originals’.

If the idea of essence-less is pursued we arrive eventually at a paradox, mentioned on p32:

“If things lack fundamental natures, it turns out that they all have the same nature, that is, emptiness, and hence both have and lack that very nature.”.

Boon calls this ‘non-duality’:

“difference and sameness are neither different nor the same; and what is, […] is emptiness itself.”

The final section of the chapter revolves around the Michael Taussig’s idea of ‘contagion’. That is, a law of contact:

“things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed”.

And once again we are back in the world of the Louis Vuitton bag, by way of an advertising image of Uma Thurman touching a Vuitton bag and looking directly at us. She has touched it with her celebrity and therefore, runs the commercial logic, we desire it. Luckily, they make more than one of these things and we can, in theory, acquire one and with a sense of connection and celebrity.

Some thoughts, and I reiterate: These concluding thoughts have been generated from reading and reflecting on the chapter and form genuine problems  with which I am wrestling. I have no idea of any answers and welcome any suggestions for further research.

If the classical view of mimesis is correct, surely all Louis Vuitton bags are merely copies, as only the Ideal or Essence is perfect. As discussed above all bags in the real world are imperfect copies, including the ‘originals’ and ‘fakes’. No doubt Louis Vuitton would take issue with this stance as they argue – through their advertising – that their bags, the ones made in their factories and sold through their shops are, to steal a phrase ‘the real thing’. The advert quoted by Boon at the head of the chapter relies on this position. So are Louis Vuitton drawing down the Essence into their products, thus marginalizing the fakes as, well, fake?

Is Essence the foundation of our copyright law? What happens to that moral force if there is no Essence?

Seeing the Velvet Underground at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in 1966 is one thing, but seeing them at the NEC in the nineties is surely different, even if it’s the same four people. However, four unknown musicians faithfully replicating the Velvet’s 1966 performance in a club in New York in the 1990’s ought to, instinctively, be rejected (or embraced), as fake. Where, than, is any Essence located? If there is any Essence in relation to objects or events, then perhaps it comes from an audience. Do we project, contingent upon knowledge, interest and so on, an essence?

How does this discussion of Essence (and its lack, which seems so plausible), fit in with art practice which continues to privilege the touch (contagion), of the maker, even if we know that historically that has a dubious basis?

Boon’s summary of the various arguments against any Essence (that has any clout), seems plausible to me, but I am struck that in a few days I am going to Paris and I plan to visit the Louvre to see paintings and sculptures, many of which I have seen in reproduction many times. I may not intellectually believe in Essence, but I act and spend as if I do. What’s going on?

Can the idea of Essence or its non-existence be applied outside the world of objects and events? Can we extend any of these arguments into relationships, politics and so on?

Bryan Eccleshall

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