A friend of mine, an artist, recently had a picture from her Facebook profile end up on a stranger’s wall. She was not just outraged; she felt violated.
What surprised me was her swift and righteous indignation. She didn’t question her own reaction, didn’t wonder if perhaps such (re)use of an image was fundamentally part and parcel of participating in the world, not to mention of participating in the world of the web, not to mention the world of the social network — you know, those sites with the big old “share” button next to everything. It was her image, had her face, and so any unsanctioned use of it was a violation. As for my suggestion that perhaps the way of images is to circulate and what was the big deal? Well, I was clearly just an asshole.
The interweb is plastic; it oozes and flows. When you plant a stake in it — words, images, information — it doesn’t take. Nothing stands still; it all moves. In fact, everywhere you go on the web, there’s that invitation to “share” — email, post, pin, or tweet. And this is to neglect right click or control-shift-4. The very grammar of the web, of the digital itself, is the circulation of content.
You, whoever you are, can’t keep it still, can’t stop your things from bleeding into the world. You are plastic, as well.
Of course, this is not just the way of the web. It’s the way of existence. As a kid, we’d do this insane thing in which we’d watch movies and then quote the movies to each other! Without proper citation! The words of Cheech, Chong, John Belushi, Eric Idle would flow from our lips without the slightest consideration. We knew these words weren’t ours. But still, radical heathens that we were, we repeated them.
Sometimes, these words — these phrases — would become incorporated into our daily shtick: Whatchyou talkin’ about, Willis? At some point, we weren’t quoting at all; we were claiming these words as part of our own style. But we wouldn’t become possessive of them. We knew they were never ours to begin with. They were just there for us, gifts that circulated through us.
Such is the way of the world. We are not isolated, self-contained units. Our very being is run through with words, images, concepts, modes of being that come from elsewhere. We are intertextual (pace Derrida). What makes you you and me me, if there is such a thing as you and me, is the particular configuration of all these things. We are productive cogs within the relentless flow of all things, a point of inflection within the great cosmic teem (pace Deleuze).
The web accelerates and magnifies this movement. And, no doubt, it can be disconcerting. I found a site recently that took an article of mine, along with my name, and called me a “contributor” to the site — a site I’d never heard of. I realize that’s not much of an affront. And while it could piss my shit off that they’re trying to make money leveraging my content, well, that is the revenue model of every social network. Facebook and Twitter make their money using our content. They write code; we supply the content; they generate the revenue. They don’t “cite” me or you or anyone. They just use it as they will to get rich rich rich.
Here’s a better, hilarious, and beautiful example. A good friend of mine curates an exquisite site called Synaptic Stimuli. At one point, he put these large scale words at the top of the page followed by some images, many of which are from the artist, Andy Goldsworthy. Here, look.
Well, if you Google those words, you’ll find them all over the web such as on Goodreads and attributed to….Andy Goldsworthy. He didn’t say those words; Michael Chichi, my friend, wrote those words. But now the world of the web believes they belong to Goldsworthy. “Belong,” in this context, is hilarious.
The more plastic the web becomes, the more we cling to these banal anachronisms such as attribution. We must say who said this! We must state the name of the artist who created this! Why? Who the fuck cares? If there’s a matter of money — if someone is selling work you’d otherwise be selling — that’s a shitty thing to do and, alas, illegal. There are actions you can take.
More often, however, it’s not a matter of financial theft but of existential, social, and epistemological impropriety. That’s mine! That’s my image! Those are my words! Or else we want to make sure the right words come from the right mouth. The idea that my friend, Michael Chichi, can write something and now the world believes Andy Goldsworthy said them seems somehow, well, wrong — to both parties.
But such so-called misattribution is art in and of itself, a creative act of scrambling the world, dj’ing the cosmos. I think of the end of Borges’ achingly brilliant, punch-myself-in-the-face funny story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”:
Menard (perhaps without wanting to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary art of reading: this new technique is that of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution. This technique, whose applications are infinite, prompts us to go through the Odyssey as if it were posterior to the Aeneid and the book Le jardin du Centaure of Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique fills the most placid works with adventure. To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?
There is no doubt an emergent ethics of how to appropriate someone else’s image. And there are no doubt plenty of examples of fucked up things that people do. But, fundamentally, such is the way of the world and certainly such is the way of the digital network. Things move, fast. Identities blur so that, for a while, my words are coming out of your mouth.