The new mixologists

February 17, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

You may not have heard of Helene Hegemann, but the 17-year-old German writer is at the centre of a brewing storm around the subjects of copyright and the nature of authorship in the Internet age. Hegemann is the author of a book titled Axolotl Roadkill, which has become a bestseller in her native country and was recently nominated for the fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. What makes this book noteworthy is that it apparently contains passages – including one that allegedly runs an entire page – that have been lifted from the work of another writer, a blogger who goes by the online nom de plume Airen.

Hegemann, a child of the Internet age, does not consider what she has done plagiarism; she prefers to call it “mixing.” An article in The New York Times quotes the German teenager as saying that “Berlin is here to mix with everything.” Which sounds very DIY and cutting-edge, until you realize that Hegemann lifted that line from Arien’s blog. Hegemann claims to represent a new generation with new ideas about proprietorship vis à vis intellectual property. Essentially, for Hegemann (and, by extension everyone in her demographic cohort), in the Internet age, everything is up for grabs. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway,” Hegemann says, “only authenticity.” (How one can claim “authenticity” if one’s work is largely the creation of another is a mystery to me, but we’ll let that go for the moment.)

The current farrago puts yr. humble correspondent in mind of two other famous cases of “borrowing” material. In the first, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan was roundly excoriated when it became apparent that her 2006 novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life contained passages that were lifted verbatim from two novels by Meg McCafferty. The second case, however, turned out rather differently. In that case, not only was the “borrower” not vilified, he went on to win the 2002 Booker Prize. When some perceptive readers noticed that Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi bore a suspicious similarity to a lesser-known 1981 novel called Max and the Cats, by Brazilian author Moacyr Scilar, Martel freely acknowledged the debt. At the time, Mobylives quoted Martel:

“This is how it happened,” he writes in an e–mail interview with Orin Judd at BrothersJudd.com. “Ten years ago. Review in New York Times Book Review by John Updike of a Brazilian novel by one Moacyr Scliar … Not a good review. Did nothing to Updike. But premise sizzled in my mind. I thought ‘Man, I could do something with that.'”

Martel went so far as to say that Scilar provided the “spark of life” for Pi, and told the Associated Press, “I don’t feel I’ve done something dishonest.”

That being the case, one might imagine that Martel would have a certain sympathy for Hegemann. But if Axolotl Roadkill represents the thin edge of the wedge, what can we expect the future of books to look like in a world where everything from current releases to classics in the public domain is available for remix, refashioning, and reuse? We’ve already seen a glut of Jane Austen-inspired “mash-ups,” thanks to last year’s unlikely Quirk Classics bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; can we now expect that similar revisions (or, more properly, “re-visionings”) of canonical works will be forced upon us by writers with a clever idea and access to cut-and-paste computer software? For modern works, will copyright have any practical value at all?

In an interview with Hugh Maguire for Open Book: Toronto, Sean Cranbury envisions a “ridiculously dystopic” future in which source texts become collages at the hands of Internet users employing the digital equivalent of scissors and a glue stick:

People are going take text that they like or want to use for a specific purpose from wherever they can find it, and they are going to manipulate it to whatever ends they desire. Then they’re going to slap it into some kind of digital container and probably cross-pollinate the work with video, stills, music, scans of random junk found lying around and then they are going to share it. That content will then be reconstituted by others who have picked it up somewhere in the digital aether.

In this new world, Cranbury posits, “Digital content will have a universal currency rate of 0. It will simply be given away, shared, remixed and reconstituted, and the only way to determine anything like our common sense of ‘worth’ will be by its buoyancy and popularity on the P2P networks.”

In his book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, Andrew Keen quotes cyberpunk author William Gibson as saying that the words “appropriation” and “borrowing” are in fact outmoded terms that don’t mean anything to the participatory culture of the Internet. “The record,” Gibson says, “not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.” To which it is tempting to point out that without the record, there is nothing to remix in the first place (hence the term remix …), but again, we’ll let that one go for now.

Keen goes on to write:

A survey published in Education Week found that 54 percent of students admitted to plagiarizing from the Internet. And who is to know if the other 46 percent are telling the truth? Copyright and authorship begin to lose all meaning to those posting their mash-ups and remixings on the Web. They are, as Professor Sally Brown at Leeds Metropolitan University notes, “Postmodern, eclectic, Google-generationists, Wikipediasts, who don’t necessarily recognize the concepts of authorships/ownerships.”

Given Hegemann’s comment that there is no such thing as originality, it may be that the word “necessarily” in Professor Brown’s assessment is de trop. What makes me nervous, however, is not that the generation coming of age with the Internet has no conception of the importance of authorship. What makes me nervous is that they do recognize this – they just don’t care.

Comments

13 Responses to “The new mixologists”
  1. Alex says:

    You might want to check out David Shields’ “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto” (I’m posting a review of it on Monday). Same argument about how originality is dead, so get over it. All art is, and has always been, a crib. Copyright laws are outdated. A counter-argument is put forward by Jaron Lanier in “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto” (the manifesto is a hot genre). Lanier says this kind of thinking dooms us to living in a kind of retropolis where all we do is cannibalize old art forms in mixtapes and mash-ups and all the rest.

    Interesting debate. It’s certainly the spirit of the age. Don’t know how worried we should be about that yet.

  2. DGM says:

    I’m curious about this idea that anything that is digitised is supposedly up for grabs. In regards to e-books, for instance, I have seen some posters (mostly anonymous, of course) claim that DRM is almost an insult to e-book users, and that e-books are best utilised as a freebie to promote the actual paper book. The theory goes that since anything that is in a digital format can be duplicated very easily — DRM and software keys can always be cracked, if the demand is high enough — they why not give it away and use the weakness to its full potential?

    Sampling the digitised text, then, seems like the next natural step — for better or worse, as others have already highlighted above. That said, I could just “sample” their sentences and repeat them here. No such thing as originality anyway, right? Once it becomes impossible to be paid for an original thought, maybe we’ll all be repeating other peoples’ punchlines like we’re trapped in some endless episode of Family Guy. Giggity!

  3. Finn Harvor says:

    While Ms. Hegemann — the earphones of her iPod (or ichPod) screwed into her ears more tightly than wingnuts — happily head-bops her way to the bank, she might consider the following: while “mixers” like herself posture during TV interviews about the death of originality, her betters are not only being overlooked by a selecting class skimming its way through ms. proposals because in a hurry to get to that evening’s nightclubs, they are sometimes not even getting in print at all. This has ramifications for how work that (dare I say it?) is in fact original works its way into the cultural matrix; and it also has ramifications for its vulnerability.

    If no man is an island, it turns out that apparently during the early days of the Plastic Millennium, no thief is alone in the shallows.

    The cleverer animals of the pond had better watch their backs.

  4. Andrew S says:

    “Mixing” is, of course, nothing new, and it ain’t the property of the much-ballyhooed digital generation. Borrowing has been around forever. The question is whether the work is good.

    A leading recent example, the work of a guy now in his seventies: Bob Dylan’s 2001 album, “Love & Theft.” The extent of the borrowings there, from a Japanese novel, from the letters of Ullysses S. Grant, from traditional songs, from contemporary songs, from Shakespeare, from whereever else is, well … extensive. Even the title is stolen, from a book on the appropriation of blues by white musicians, and that borrowing highlighted by placing the title within quotation marks, a title perfect for the album because it’s about, well, love and theft.

    Dylan was making a point there, obviously, a point that could be seen as a remark on the whole question of copyright vs. culture. But the thing is, he’s making a point, not just lifting things from other people.

    Is the borrowing making some point about borrowing? Does the borrowing expand the depth and richness of the borrower’s work, by allusion? Does the borrowing expand on the borrowed work? No? No? No? Then what’s it for?

    I dunno about this one, because I don’t read German. But I’m willing to accept the proposition that a 17-year-old may not yet have many original things to say.

    Anyway, got to go. I’m off to write a book on literature consisting solely of paragraphs lifted from this blog. I’m going to call it “Retropolis Ballyhoo: A Manifesto,” because the manifesto is a hot genre.

  5. Andrew’s point is well-taken. I would take one more quantum step backwards from mixology to storytelling. Aside from the preoccupation with originality, the fundamental questions should centre on the stories being told, whether they are well-told, told meaningfully and compellingly, in other words the quality of the work being produced. This debate seems to be more about form than content. Every artist has a debt to pay, usually many. The work of the renaissance, perhaps the greatest revolutionary period of the arts (until today?) was largely an hommage to the Greeks. It was still revolutionary work that, filtered through the sensibility and conditions of the day, responded to prescient needs. In other words, it mattered. The question in the digital age is, does any of the stuff – and there’s heaps and heaps of stuff – being produced, really matter?

  6. Steven

    This is the best distillation of this current issue that I have read by a long shot. Good work. Great comments, too.

    My problem is that I don’t read German and can’t adequately investigate this ‘Airen’ person.

    I wonder whether he/she actually exists and what this plagiarized novel looks like. If anybody has any links or other pieces of evidence to show that Airen is not some piece of a perverse meta-marketing technique I would be pleased to see them.

    The NYT piece and others are a bit light on this – to me – crucial set of details.

  7. LH says:

    Just had Kenny Goldsmith here at Concordia to give his talk on Uncreative Writing. The fact that we can appropriate texts so easily is something we have to deal with. I deal with it all the time in my classroom. It’s part of contemporary writing and it needs to be discussed and evaluated so that people know what they’re dealing with.

    I feel the swing is wide–particularly where Kenny is concerned. And it’s purposely extreme so that it forces us to rethink our assumptions about texts and circulation and creation, etc. But I think the author is still there making choices, and I don’t think s/he is dead, or going anywhere soon. Not at all.

    And Steven, I think everyone in the jam-packed audience at Concordia cared. And cares. Cares very much.

  8. Andrew S says:

    It should also be said, Steven, re your final quotation, that it’s a mistake to confuse the issue of academic plagiarism with artistic borrowing. The latter is very much about why, and how much, and whether it’s effective; the former is simply cheating, in which people place more importance on the diploma than on the education that it supposedly represents.

  9. August says:

    Hegemann’s arguments are disingenuous at best, and I think the fact that any credence is being lent to this “child of the digital age/remix culture” is sheer stupidity on the part of the media. What she’s done is no such thing.

    Remixes (and if Hegemann’s a DJ, she knows this) are not considered original works in the music world, and the original artist retains credit as the creator of the work. My friend Steve is a DJ who makes his living almost exclusively by doing remixes under the name Bit Funk. If he were to do a remix of, say, Poker Face by Lady Gaga, then his version of the song would be released as this: Poker Face (Bit Funk Remix) by Lady Gaga. Steve wouldn’t ever get credit as the creator, because that’s not really what remixing is.

    And then there’s mashups, where instead of a whole new version of an existing work, you take two or more existing works and, you know, mash them together to make something entirely new (like Dangermouse, Artie Fufkin, ccc, etc). These are usually illegal, and the DJ who makes these generally credits themselves as the creator of these works. But! No effort is made to hide the source material, because the whole point is play off the reputation and social/artistic markers of that material. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is pointless without Jane Austen and the whole circus troupe of reputation, scholarship, and mythology that comes with her. Refusing to acknowledge the source material of a mashup is to entirely miss the point.

    Finally there’s sampling, which is the closest to what Hagemann actually did, from what I can tell, which is to say taking small bits of somebody else’s work and incorporating them into your own without necessarily being explicit that you’re doing so. There are two ways that DJs/producers do this. The first way is to take a sample and transform it so completely that it’s either entirely unrecognizable (which some would argue is fair use, though those samples are generally cleared and paid for) or only a highly knowledgeable listener would spot it. Folks have been doing that at least since the late 1970s. Then there’s what the DJ/producer duo The Dust Brothers did for the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Beck’s Odelay: samples were used in such a way as to explicitly mark them as samples within the work, thereby creating whole new layers of interetextuality. The albums that do this well are fascinating, clever, often strange and beautiful. And explicit about what they’re borrowing, and more importantly, get permission to borrow it, and pay for the privilege. Shelia Heti did something like this in her book The Middle Stories, and the works she borrowed from are all listed at the back of the book.

    As an interesting aside, deliberately ripping someone off–saying “I made this” when all you’ve done is sample/remix/mashup–is a mortal sin in this world. DJs, perhaps because they have long had to defend themselves against charges of artistic theft, are eagle-eyed and merciless about calling out blatant ripoffs and vilifying those who commit them.

    Regardless of which Internet age/DJ technique Hagemann claims to be using, appropriation without attribution is not the way of things, and her excuses are just that: excuses. She got caught doing something she knows is wrong, and she’s trying to talk her way out of it by starting with the premise that the people in a position to hold her accountable are too stupid to see through her arguments.

  10. Great comment, August!

  11. Brian Palmu says:

    Someone brought up Kenny Goldsmith. I’ve commented elsewhere on his noxious ideas, and was going to type more here. But in the spirit of borrowed text, I’ll let Goldsmith have the floor. At least I’m crediting him Here’s Goldsmith:

    “I want to be machine-like, I want to take text that have already been written and simply rewrite them and transcribe them without changing anything–claim them as my own simply by the act of retyping say a day’s copy of the New York Times. So that becomes my own and simply republishing it as that.

    Creativity is such a bankrupt concept in our culture and such an over used cliché, and yet something held so highly esteemed”

    A far more aggressive stance than a 17-year-old just winging it.

  12. To all those who are outraged at Helene Hegemann’s “free-appropriation” of passages from Airen’s “Strobo,” I ask you this: Where would Jazz be without unattributed “quotes”? Where would hip-hop be without “sampling”? In fact where would popular music be without “covers”? And that’s just for starters. Think of the visual arts, opera, you name it. In fact, intellectual property rights is a very recent (late 19th & 20th century phenomenon (a product of advanced capitalism as much as protection for the artists). Join in the conversation at the Cyberfiction Virtual Book Discussion Group on “Reality Hunger” and Axolotl Roadkill” (http://groups.google.com/group/cyberfiction-book-group-reality-hungerand-axolotl-roadkill?hl=en_US)

  13. Brian Palmu says:

    Pop music’s covers are attributed to the artist(s) on the vinyl or CD.

    Jazz and classical quotes are so well known that incorporation is a tribute (or irony and satire, depending on the idea– e.g. Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony 1st movement). The original isn’t a neglected or forgotten tidbit that needs updated credit whenever referenced.

    As to intellectual property rights being a phenomenon peculiar to originators only in the last 130 years or so, there is no separation between financial or intellectual credit and artist protection. If you’re so disrespectful as to steal, unattributed, a piece of art and call it your own, from another, especially someone you deem worthy to copy, then you’re ripping that artist off both practically and morally. Even Zen artists over a thousand years before your flimsy time-frame argument said the artist should put his/her name in a corner of the painting, in a small flourish (no ego in the absolute sense) but without shame and with respect for oneself (positive ego in the relative sense).

    Back in the day (he says, fetching his cane), kids had the guts to praise or flay their elders in public, by name. Now the challenge or “tribute” is to go behind their backs. Nice.