Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Of Luddites and Mammon

Here is my (1st place winning, to indulge my obsequious vanity) speech from tonight's Gardner-White Prize Debate at the Yale Political Union on the topic, Resolved: Abolish Intellectual Property. I was speaking in the affirmative, and limited to three minutes.
Luddites, Mr Speaker! Those damnable anti-capitalists of the 19th century, those destroyers of looms, revilers of progress, reactionary troglodyte simpletons! In their confusion and rage at progress’s noble but unforgiving advance they struck back at its most pernicious manifestation: the industrialized textile mill.

Two things are curious about the modern day Luddite, Mr Speaker: first, he is now allied with the State, and not against it, with the corporations, and not in protest of them, and second, while his forbear fought to preserve a way of life in the face of economic developments he could not hope to understand, the contemporary fights merely to maintain a petty and pernicious monopoly.

This debate is not about the intricacies of patents, trademarks, and copyright, all three distinct entities that egregiously get lumped under that harmless sounding euphemism, "intellectual property". This debate is about the relationship between culture and society, between creator, and, if the body will forgive me, created for

To appropriate Larry Lessig’s terminology we must decide whether we want a “read-write” culture, where the audience not only “consumes” (to use a vulgar word) but interacts, integrates, and internalizes, or a “read-only” culture, where the gatekeepers of production and distribution limit access, define appropriate responses, and thus effectively neuter our culture itself. 

When I think back to the most breathtakingly beautiful thing I have ever seen, I recall the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg. The beauty of this Church is not in her originality, her "attribution to an individual will"-- her architecture, iconography, and even the materials with which she was built are all, if you will, highly traditional, and certainly uncopywriteable. But do not think her a facsimile of preexisting Churches-- she is, in a sense, an emergent beauty, having arisen from centuries of liturgical art and just then imagined and constructed in a more perfect visual spectacle.

Beauty is irreducible to function, and to suggest that beauty requires licensing is to reduce it to its basest and saddest function: to garner pittances here and there largely not even for the artists themselves, who, as anyone who’s ever known an artist knows, rarely have the sense to concern themselves with money, but for those decidedly unartistic, uncultured, unmoveable companies.

To those who worry that without such licensing no art, or, at least, much less art, will be produced, I note only that Ashton Kutcher was paid $20 million dollars to replace Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men. It is the status quo that is the unsustainable absurdity, ladies and gentlemen. 

Culture has not merely existed but thrived for the majority of human existence without these obscurantist regulations. Everything from the lowly folk song to the glory of our Churches, mosques, and temples, and more importantly, our deeply felt relationship to these art forms, not only does not need such laws but recoils from them. To make of every relationship a legal relationship is to utterly dehumanize us, and to reduce our relationship to art to such a state is to bow down on our knees before Mammon himself.

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