Monday, November 22, 2010

Lewis Hyde, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, 2010.

The lights lower in the house, and the screen brightens. Two or three commercials play across the screen as you lean over to your fellow cinema-goer to bet on how many trailers you’ll see, and before the first trailer seeks to tempt you into watching a movie that you have no interest in seeing, one final commercial plays: a young person in a convenience store shoves a couple of candy bars and a pop into his knapsack as the storekeeper sells a lottery ticket to an elderly woman, and then the boy takes off, high-tailing it from the store as the narrator’s deep voice says “We know that’s theft—so is stealing movies” as we cut to a young couple staring at a computer whilst slyly grinning at one another. My stomach tightens at the commercial, though I’ve never illegally downloaded a movie. While I could argue against the false equivalence being established in the efforts of this commercial and its brethren, nothing I could essay would be as erudite, as engaging, or as convincing as Lewis Hyde’s recent Common as Air.

Just as in Trickster Makes This World*, Hyde uses analogies and discursive examples to outline an argument that is very difficult to argue against convincingly. In Common as Air, he argues that copyright is broken: that what once existed to help the development of art and discovery now limits and prevents meaningful building on the “shoulders of giants” that have gone before. He proposes reform, asking us to move away from the notion of property to a commons with stints. Hyde develops this proposal with heavy reference both to the ancient structures and strictures of the commons and to the founding fathers or the United States. At times heavily historical, the reader would be forgiven for thinking in the early pages that she was reading more of an history of ideas than a book dealing with what may be the defining issue of our time. The fifth chapter makes heavy use of Benjamin Franklin to show how his work on a number of scientific fronts could not have occurred without heavy debts both to earlier investigations whose results had been freely shared and to his oft-forgotten co-experimenters. Its argument is that the “founders believed that created works belong largely in the commons so as to support and enliven creative communities” (112); the preceding chapters develop our understanding of the commons, and the successive chapters expand this idea and show how it has continuing relevance to our society and culture, with reference to Bob Dylan, the human genome, and the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. Hyde captivates the reader both in the argument itself and in his myriad and surprising examples. Dealing carefully with both issues of law and culture, the arguments he makes are persuasive and intriguing. The sceptic—who is willing to agree that theft is theft, and copyright works just fine, thank you—will find himself challenged, and the already converted will need to nuance her arguments in the light of Hyde’s work.

What I find most compelling in Hyde’s new book is an essential underpinning of his argument. A serious problem that our contemporary culture faces is that we tend to conceive of freedom as negative: too often we are concerned about being free from infringements by others. Hyde shows that this way of thinking is backwards when compared with the bulk of thinking about freedom through time.
Social well-being in this view cannot arise simply by aggregating individual choices; private interest and public good are too often at odds. Citizens acquire virtue in the civic republic, therefore, not by productivity but by willingly allowing self-interest to bow to the public good (or by recognizing that the two are one). (93)

True liberty is not freedom from, but rather freedom for, a liberty that is entirely congruent with what is extolled in the Magnificat, for example. I need to spend more time thinking about how Hyde’s arguments are working on my own understanding of what it is to live in the communities in which I make my home.

My sole serious quibble with the book is composed of two lines on the frontispiece: “Copyright © 2010 by Lewis Hyde / All rights reserved.” After he so extolled the virtues of Creative Commons licenses, was there an effort to persuade Farrar, Strauss and Giroux to publish Common as Air under such a license?

* I first fell in love with Hyde’s writing when reading his magnificent Trickster Makes This World. If you haven’t read it, I remind you that old time is still a-flying.)

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