Saturday, July 28, 2012

Pierre Menard and Thomas Hancock

The metaphysics of paper is not only the metaphysics of writing. It is the metaphysics that grounds 'intellectual property". 

The problem of intellectual property is linked to the problem of definition by the fact that both invention and definition float in an ocean of anonymous uses, practices, discoveries and performances – a commons of what everybody knows, somehow. Intellectual property lays claim to something in that ocean, and some value added claimed for the individual as engineer, organizer, and genius. Definition lays claim to an insight into how bits of the ocean of language are organized and meant. Invention is personal; definition is impersonal. At the intersection of the two, we get intellectual property law.

Although we live in the era of the resurgence of piracy against monopoly – the latter in the form of IP claims – we don’t entirely realize what the modern enclosure movement is all about, or how tangled is its history. 

Intellectual property was recognized, as  every history recounts, first in Venice in the 15th century. But the more interesting arguments about intellectual property begin in the 18th century. It was at this time that we see two different trends: one trend was towards breaking up guilds and destroying the power of “craft secrets” –and the other was towards rewarding authors rights on the products of their “mental labor.”

England, which made the leap into industrial capitalism in the eighteenth century, has gained the most attention from historians of intellectual property. However, France also had laws pertaining to licensing invention. These notions culminated in
Le Chapelier's  report to the Convention in 1791 urging a law to assure the right in property of an author to his work. This property was not just another property, like a horse, a slave in Santo Domingo, or a house: the “fruit of the thought of a writer”  was “the most sacred, the most legitimate, the most unattackable, and if one may say so, the most personal of all properties.” These accolades are heavy as the marble laurel wreath crowns on the head of a bust. They seem strange. How can the most personal of properties even exist as a property – that is, as an exchange value?

Le Chapelier's report was preceded by a long line of enquiry among the philosophes.  In particular, by Diderot.
Diderot,  was one of the first great advocates of the author’s property in his work in France. But, as Liliane Hilaire-Perez (2002), who works on intellectual property history, has pointed out, Diderot distinguished between the very personal property of the author from what he took to be the craft secrets of mechanical invention – the latter of which were dubious properties. In his History and Secret of Wax Painting, an extended case study of a contemporary invention, Diderot wrote:

“Nothing is  more contrary to intellectual progress than mystery. We would still be at trying to understand the simplest and most important arts if those who discovered them made them secret. Far from us, thus, that spirit of interest or pride which seems to conspire with the natural imbecility of man and the briefness of his life to perpetuate his ignorance…”

Mystery, here, really means mystification.

 “The main issue for Diderot was to explain that technical invention relied on a method, an ‘art’, which was not actually the case in artistic creativity; the crucial point was the understanding of the concepts of cumulation and imitation in the process of invention.” (2002)

Diderot wrote his history of wax painting against the background of the French monarchy’s practice of encouraging invention by awarding brevet to those inventions thought worthy by the state. This entailed some kind of state reward and a right to demand compensation from users of the invention. The point of the system, which was devised under Colbert, was to encourage  the arts. This, in fact, was also used as a  justification for the monopoly system of patenting in the Anglosphere. In a sense, both justifications were responding to Diderot’s distinction between, as Hilaire-Perez puts it, genius and method.

This distinction may seem rather self-interested: Diderot as a writer is, in a sense, part of the guild. On the other hand, it does make some conceptual sense, within the conceptual scheme that brings together definition, property, invention and discovery. Tumblers in - I will boldly say - all the locks of the modern.

We can think of this distinction through the lens of one of Borges’ most famous stories, Pierre Menard: the author of Don Quixote. In this story, Pierre Menard, a French symbolist, decides to write the Don Quixote as a new work. He doesn’t mean by this that he will borrow Cervantes’ stories, or characters: he means by this that he will reinvent Don Quixote word for word, and thus make is a twentieth century work. Obviously, Pierre Menard’s word for word ‘writing’ of Don Quixote is, on one level, simply copying the text. But Borges’ narrator emphasizes that Menard did not simply copy – he also wrote drafts leading up to his copy, just as though he were writing the book himself. And, in a final turn of the modernist screw, he destroyed those drafts, because he wanted the work to be pure of the author’s presence – which was also part of writing the Don Quixote as a modernist text, one that shows the influence of the Flaubertian aesthetic of impersonality.

That, eventually, at some point, in order to write the Don Quixote in the twentieth century, Menard had to copy Cervante’s text, is part of the Borges’ joke. There would be no paradox, however, if we turned from writing a novel to, for instance, inventing the process for vulcanizing rubber. In fact, in 1852, Charles Goodyear took Horace Day to court on patent infringement because Day was using vulcanized rubber. Goodyear’s case was argued by Daniel Webster. Goodyear hadn’t made much on his rubber, and it was reported that he wanted a seven year extension on his patent, which was running out – so he may have intentionally been looking around for a case.  Choate, Day’s lawyer, “marshaled  convincing testimony from rubber factory employees that vulcanization was in common use in the early 1840s” (Handbook of American Business History). In fact, Goodyear had already paid Nathaniel Hayward for the idea – or rather, the patent rights - of adding sulfur to rubber. But it was, according to Goodyear, not method but accident that made the difference in the vulcanizing process. Goodyear mixed sulfur with rubber and accidentally dropped the rubber on a hot pan. He took the rubber out of the pan and left it to cool, and found that it became much more durable – just what he was looking for.

However, there is another part of this famous story that is not usually included in canonical American accounts: Goodyear’s patent included lead as an ingredient in the vulcanization process. This proved to be a point against him in England.

There, Goodyear came up against Thomas Hancock, who had already ‘invented’ impermeable clothing – waterproof cloth. Hancock got a sample of vulcanized rubber. He was able to analyse it and reproduce the process – and subsequently patented it himself. In a report of a “jury” of scientists in England for the Great Exhibition of 185 – the Crystal Palace – which  examined the dispute between Hancock and Goodyear, both parties were credited with working out the vulcanization process. While the jury conceded that Goodyear had produced vulcanized rubber before Hancock, it also noted that Hancock knew nothing of Goodyear’s process. Rather, he discovered for himself the crucial determinant of heating the rubber. More than that, unlike Goodyear, Hancock understood what he was doing: that is, he understood what caused vulcanization. “Whatever may be the share of merit assigned to Mr. Goodyear and to Mr. Hancock in this important invention, the latter has not the less exclusive merit of having discovered that sulphur was the sole  cause of the vulcanization process. On seeing Mr. Charles Goodyear introducing the different salts of lead into the specification of the patent that he subsequently took out, it is felt that he regarded their intervention as  indispensable, while it is now demonstrated that sulphur alone is sufficient.”

Between Thomas Hancock and Pierre Menard there is a superficial similarity: both reproduced a product of invention. But Pierre Menard’s story is a paradox precisely because the invention of the Don Quixote by Cervantes is not just of the ideas, or the process, of making Don Quixote, but of the entire work – a work which wears its process, so to speak, on its face. Whereas the vulcanization of rubber is not an invention of Goodyear’s imagination. It is, rather, the encounter of different materials pre-existing in nature. Hancock’s work was comparatively simple – a matter of chemical analysis – whereas Menard’s work is impossible – he cannot so analyse Don Quixote so as to repeat it. He can only, eventually, in spite of everything, copy it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

bit of life

I'm a fierce partisan of Paris. Yet, there is something funny about Paris in the heat. In Montpellier, where we just spent around two weeks, the heat was familiar, southern, and its grammar was full of the commas and semi-colons of breeze. The light on Montpellier buildings highlighted something clear about them, something that made you think that the builder's intended the shadows to fall just so. In Paris, the heat is more cluttered, more dirtying. Yesterday, I was drinking a beer in a cafe near Jussieu and there was a little heat-driven contretemps between the waiter - who was a boy of around 20 - and one of those middle aged men with the kind of slinky beachtan that makes them irresistably untrustable. The man walked out without paying - the boy came after him - and the man turned to the owner of the place, who was sitting outside, and said he was a regular, and he was going to his car to find his wallet to pay. And then he called the boy a cretin. Which is when I decided a large tip was due. The owner was wonderfully monsieuring, but he got down to brass tacks in the end - you mean, he said, that you came into the place knowing that you didn't have your wallet? I think the cafe lost this regular, but I think the owner enjoyed the loss. So did I. So did the waiter.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

literature's brooder

In the lexicon of cognitive states, brooding has a distinctly low ranking. We meditate or reflect to achieve illumination; brooding, however, is the prelude to a tantrum. To think means trying to see the object of thought whole – but the brooder is peculiarly averse to letting go of the object of thought, and thus condemns himself to repetition and compulsion. Argument is meant to persuade us to let the personal go, to, in effect, accept the autonomy of discourse. In Socrates’ dialogues, the argument is often treated as though it were some live thing, a spirit, a genius that must be respected. As such, the argument is extra-personal. From this perspective, brooding is a failed, or at the very least, a pariah cognitive act.

Yet, the brooder does have one fierce insight on his side, for the ideology of cognition obscures the moment of surrender, or sacrifice, in the release of the object of thought to the drift of discourse – to “what everybody knows”. The brooder understands that argument’s aspiration to universality is founded on blooding the personal, and that universality operates under the rule of polemos, or war. To surrender a thought is, among other things, to surrender.

Cioran is one of the great brooders. His longer essays can seem wearying because his sentences are so highly worked that they seem not to be building an argument, but to be resisting one. The readerly flow of the essay is impeded by the brilliances of its individual moments. Cioran sometimes seems like one of those  brilliant conversationalists who never, actually, converse – in as much as conversation is marked by listening, while the brilliance of the conversationalist seems impervious to hearing. It bears the mark of a certain deafness. And so it is, sometimes, with Cioran, especially in his first texts.

Cioran’s development of a reader is a long, painful abdication of the harangue and the monologue. To hear the other means, in a sense, letting your style – the verbal front Cioran is so careful to maintain – allow itself a certain vulnerability. Cioran begins to be readable, for just this reason, in The Temptation to Exist. It is here that he actually goes the distance, rather than contenting himself with the pure jab of the phrase.

It is here, too, that he takes as one of his objects of thought brooding itself – although he doesn’t label the negative space he opposes to reflection “brooding” as such. What he does is turn upon reflection, in its institutional forms (literature and philosophy) his suspicion that underneath the mask of liberality lurks the spirit of resentment, the eternal return of a grievance. This notion has a long history, and we know its avatars: Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in particular. It is the reactionary road to enlightenment.

In Letter on some roadblocks (Lettre sur quelques impasses), Cioran uses a trick that he employs, as well, in later texts to detach himself from the brooder’s solipsism: the essay as a message to some correspondent. To write a letter is not the same as engaging in a  conversation, because letters are not subject to the vital element in conversation – interruption. While conversations go by “turns”, the violent can bear them away simply by interrupting, and there is nothing in the rules that forbids this. But letters are, briefly, a space the producer controls. At the same time, the letter must, however grudgingly, acknowledge the addressee.

The impasses or roadblocks here collect around the hated figure of the writer. On the pretence that Cioran is warning his friend against publishing a book, he launches into an invective against the mere writer – the littérateur – which, of course, produces a performative “impass”  - since Cioran is very much a writer. This allots him a paradoxical place in his argument. Cioran accepts the cynicism of the paradox – he even exploits it. It is as though he were not so much a writer as an anthropologist carrying out fieldwork on people like Cioran – other writers. And in this guise, he is reporting on their rituals.

What is it that Cioran hates about the  writer? It is, I think, the writer’s tendency to be a moral entrepreneur – to wave about his sensitivity to right and wrong as though it were a superiority, a talent. Underneath the moral entrepreneur, Cioran spots the vacuity of the rhetorician:

‘Voltaire was the first litterateur to erect his incompetence into a procedure, a method. Before him the writer, happy enough to be next to events, was more modest: doing his job in a limited sector, he followed his path and stuck to it. No journalist, he was most interested in the anecdotal  aspect of certain solitudes: his indiscretion was inefficacious.

With our know it all (hableur) things changed. None of the subjects which intrigued his times escaped his sarcasm, his demi-science, his need for noise, his universal vulgarity.Everything was impure with him, except his style…”

Note a key term for Cioran: impurity. Impurity, for Cioran, is a hallmark of liberal enlightenment. To understand this, one has to understand Cioran’s dallying with fascism of the most violent sort in the 30s, and his brief stance as an admirer of Hitler.  This, actually, is the center of what Cioran brooded upon his whole life long – his error, here, and his retraction. In the 30s, Cioran was very explicit about his hatred of the Jews, his desire for war, his faith in great and therapeutic violence that would stamp some hierarchy on the people for one thousand years.

Later, in the late thirties in France, he began to change his mind. He did not, as far as I am aware of, collaborate in the forties. Rather, he went over and over the logic of his position, starting from the idea that liberal Europe had suffocated itself under its own dead skin, exiled from the sources of life itself. And yet, he retreated to the liberal side and renounced violence: he renounced life-affirming war, and opted for death-affirming peace. Violence, in Cioran’s view, makes us gigantic, larger than life, and we renounce it at our peril. In History and Utopia he wrote:

“We employ our clearest vigils in taking apart our enemies limb from limb, pulling out their eyes and guts, popping and emptying their veins,  crushing and pounding underfoot each of their organs, and leaving them, for charity’s sake, merely the enjoyment of their skeletons.” But, clearly, these are visions that Cioran now does not want to see realized on the streets of the cities (where, as he remarked somewhere else, he is always mildly astonished that everyone is not killing everyone else). However, that renunciation has a price. The price is paid in purity: “Not to venge oneself is to be enchained in the idea of forgiveness, it is to sink into it, get stuck in it, it is to render oneself impure by the hatred one strangles in oneself.”

Thus, the hidden dialectic between, on the one hand, the universal vulgarisers of liberal society, and, on the other hand, the stocking up of resentment and weakness. What distinguished the Fascist principle for Cioran was its recognition of the logic of purity: it advocated violence not for the sake of peace, but because violence was beautiful; bombing was beautiful because it smashed and hurt our enemies down to the last generation; mass murder was beautiful because you could see your true self in the pooled blood of the victims. Cioran, at last, recognized this to be madness, but he did not renounce the logic of purity – rather, he sought a catharsis through rehearsing extreme statements in the paradoxical mode. After getting off to a false start in life, he made false starts a hallmark of his style. And so brooding, in his work, takes the place of reflection, and reflects, pallidly, the dangerous fires that he had longed to light himself – and that then ran so out of control that he was condemned to live in a world that was singed by the destruction they wrought.