Marcus Boon


On his book In Praise of Copying

Cover Interview of November 10, 2010

The wide angle

The book is intended to be a primer on copying: each chapter examines some aspect of copying, from the core philosophical issue as to what a copy is, the history of the word “copy,” copying as an act of transformation, appropriation or deception, to mass production and montage as ways of making copies.

Teaching contemporary literature and culture at a university, I was interested in students’ attitudes to sampling, cutting and pasting, plagiarism, downloading and such matters.

What struck me when I talked to students is that although they were very interested in these things, they were completely unable to justify their interest—mostly because these things involve copying and they’d repeatedly been told that copying is bad.

At the same time, I realized that most of the literature on intellectual property has been written by legal scholars who often hold admirable positions on legal reform—but seem to have no analysis of copying itself, not beyond the fact that copying appears to be a useful tool that could also be misused.

One of my own teachers, Michael Taussig, wrote a great book on imitation in the 1990s, called Mimesis and Alterity.  That really opened my eyes to how fundamental practices of imitation are in human and nonhuman cultures.  So I wanted to rethink the idea of copying as it appears to me today navigating contemporary cultures—the internet, musical subcultures, having a family, or thinking about politics—using the broad philosophical and anthropological analysis that Taussig had made.

And I wanted the book to have a freestyle flavor, that it should be an improvised response to whatever situations I encountered.

When I actually started doing research on the subject, things opened up in surprising ways.  I’d been interested in Buddhist philosophy for a long time and I found myself rethinking the philosophical frameworks that have been used to describe copying—most of which come down to us from Plato.

Although copying seems like a peripheral issue in Buddhism, in fact most Buddhist practices and much of Buddhist philosophy is actually a profound analysis and evaluation of our existence as beings that imitate.  It’s clear that other cultures have valued copying in different ways from our own and that it’s possible to imagine reconfigurations of our own society that acknowledge the value of copying.

Different practices of copying would make possible new forms of community, exchange, sharing.  In fact we see those things emerging around us today, only to be shut down by a legal-philosophical tradition that finds it difficult to imagine that anything exists that is not private property.  Despite what free-market boosters might say, it’s not private property that really underlies our economy but the ability to mass-produce copies.

As the ability to mass-produce copies spreads around the world, and becomes available to more and more people through computers and so on, interesting questions are arising.  What will the world look like when everyone is able to copy everything freely, when there are enough copies for everyone?  We can only answer this question by really understanding where our desire to copy comes from and what choices are available to us in terms of what to copy and how.

That also brings up an uncomfortable but important issue: To what degree are we ourselves copies?

We live in a culture that highly prizes individuality. But we also know that biologically and psychologically, we’re all very similar.  Politically too, there’s no obvious reason why different people should have different rights.

How does the world change if/when we start to take seriously our similarity and sameness?