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Recycling Recycling or plus ça change...

Marilyn Randall

Other Voices, 3.1 Recycling Culture
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The reuse of cultural materials is at least as old as the Latin translation of Hellenistic culture, a practice signifying the conquest of the superior culture as well as enacting the improvement of the conquering one. According to Horace: "Captive Greece captured the savage victor and brought the arts into rustic Latium" (Epistles II, i, 156) From translation to imitation to plagiarism to intertextuality to appropriation to recycling, it is worth wondering whether these and a host of other available terms are simply euphemisms in which to recast a similar practice, or whether there is something substantive created or transmitted by this shifting terminology across a span of time that could well be seen to coincide with the history of Western culture. While the answers to these questions are inevitably embedded in historical and contextual conventions and presuppositions defining "good" and "bad" art, there is some evidence that it is less the specific nature of the textual practice than the terms used to describe it which vacillates over the centuries. As the 19th century Larousse proclaims in no uncertain terms: "The 19th century has renewed everything. First, it has proscribed as plagiarism what in the previous three centuries was considered to be a legitimate imitation, a happy theft" ("Originality," 1471).

My argument in favor of a rather stable aesthetic practice designated by a fluid and shifting set of descriptors subscribes to a pragmatically based view of cultural production in which it is less the practice of the author—genius or Grub Street hack—than the interests of the reader that are at stake in the determination of the legitimacy of repetition. While translation or imitation were for a long time the only legitimate ways to produce "art," strict rules applied to the ways in which these practices were to conform to acceptable standards. From classical to neo-classical times, multiple sources, and only those of the highest quality, transformed by the individual genius of the new author, were the elements required to lift the work above servile imitation. Erasmus summarizes his position on the question while providing a useful resume of the Classical tenets of good imitation:

Again, I approve of imitation—but imitation not enslaved to one set of rules, from the guidelines of which it dare not depart, but imitation which gathers from all authors, or at least from the most outstanding, the thing which is the chief virtue of each and which suits your own cast of mind; imitation which does not immediately incorporate into its own speech any nice little feature it comes across, but transmits it to the mind for inward digestion, so that becoming part of your own system, it gives the impression not of something begged from someone else, but of something that springs from your own mental processes . . . (1986, 441-442).

Nineteenth-century aesthetics condemned the explicit reuse of "found" discourse and the notion of influence served to explain the debt of great poets and writers to their literary forebears. The concept of intertextuality (followed closely by bricolage, appropriation and recycling) subsequently fulfilled a theoretical need to explain the fact of aesthetic repetition to a generation whose faith in originality was confronted by the (re)discovery of its very impossibility. Recycling1, while evoking positive connotations for the blue box generation, also carries with it the more unsettling suggestion of a practice governed not by choice but by environmental necessity, a practice whose virtue derives from a context of crisis in which the production of waste has become a primary, rather than a secondary activity. Translated into the cultural realm, the notions of exhaustion and of the gratuitous production of the worthless loom behind the metaphor.

My hypothesis, which is based on evidence from literary critical discourse over the centuries, is that the specificity of postmodern recycling resides primarily in the connotations of the term, and that today`s recycling corresponds quite closely to age-old practices of cultural (re)production. Authoritative judges (i.e. nowadays, cultural critics) have always felt compelled to distinguish between good art and bad, and they do so by availing themselves of a critical vocabulary designed to justify or condemn, elevate or denigrate particular works and conventions. It is not a question of whether cultural material is or is not reused (recycled, plagiarized, imitated), since that in itself is an inevitable given across history, differing more in degree and explicitness than in kind. What is at stake is whether the reuse in question is seen to conform to the presuppositions governing "art"; whether the interests of the reader/critic in defending or opposing cultural products require that they be seen to be of the positive or negative variety.

It is the role of the reader or critic in determining cultural value that is the most significant in this process. While this view of aesthetics is far from new, it has not usually been applied to examples of repetition which are usually seen to emanate from the author (with or without the presumption of intentionality) and which are presumed to reside in the cultural text for the reader to discover (allusion, influence, intertextuality, recycling) or not (plagiarism). It is in the realm of critical judgments and in the terms used to describe repetition that it becomes positive or negative. In this sense, "postmodern recycling" may itself be an example of recycling of that very old, and very stable cultural constant known in its most generic or neutral term as imitation.

Is recycling simply a "jay dressed in borrowed feathers?" In surveying the history of literary "plagiarism" in the West from Ancient times to the present (Randall, 2001), I have been struck by the relative stability of the forms of imitation, on one hand, and on the other, by the great variation in the descriptions of what amounts to similar practices. Unsurprisingly, these terms are often derived from socio-economic contexts which are themselves not literary. Thus, the very term plagiarism derives from the Latin word describing the punishment (ad plagia—to the whip) which befell perpetrators of the crime of slave-stealing or else of kidnapping a child (Fiske, 27). Other metaphors—commonly variations on theft—underline the economic concerns of the appropriation of intellectual properties and their intimate connection with their originator. Pillaging, or plundering, for example, is a noble enterprise when carried out on the possessions of a superior culture: for Ronsard and Du Bellay this meant, of course, Greece and Rome2. Likewise, the term conquest for the transnational appropriation of cultural products—a.k.a. translation—has a long and venerable history, whose connotations depend directly on a worldview in which conquest is positively connoted. Today, the form of conquest known as cultural imperialism, inappropriate when practised by imperialists, is sometimes judged to be a legitimate gesture of contestation and self-defence when enacted, for example, by the cultural producers of former European colonies.3

It is in this context, then, in which shifting terminologies reflect changes in attitudes towards the aesthetic of imitation rather than essential changes in the practice itself, that I would like to examine the connotations of the term cultural recycling. In presuming to assimilate to a single practice what different terminologies set out explicitly to distinguish, the obvious danger is the sacrificing of interesting differences to uninteresting similarities; indeed, the most interesting aspect of a continuous practice dressed in various guises may be in fact not the practice but the dressing, what it seeks to foreground, and how it seeks to inflect the too-well-known with an aura of novelty or modernity, reinvesting it with a contemporary pertinence and rescuing it from the obsolescence to which the patina of familiarity and of the outmoded would relegate it. My exploration, then, will be less concerned with actual practices of plagiarism, repetition, imitation and/or recycling, than with the connotations attached to some of these terms in the social-historical context in which they appear.

What ideological or cultural work does the recycling metaphor do for the practice of cultural imitation that previous or competing metaphors do not? I have already indicated the ambiguity of its connotations, and the culture of excessive production and gratuitous waste which they entail. Avant-garde cultural workers such as Stewart Home and his Festivals of Plagiarism in the late 80's (Home, 1987; 1995) and, more recently, the Detritus.net group organized by collage musician Steev Hise, are more or less unanimous in adopting an anti-capitalist model of subversion to explain or justify the practice. Steev Hise describes his evolution from an unreflective use of mixing and sampling to an activist stance:

Now the latest stage in my thinking is that I've continued to get more and more interested in the political/philosophical side of the sampling issue; and, as I've studied more of the related scholarship, I've become increasingly convinced that this struggle, this fight for the freedom to participate in culture by recycling culture, is really just a symptom, just one part of a larger struggle, the struggle against what's called late capitalism. So in the future my work is going to be increasingly informed by that view . . . (Hise, 1999).

Recycling clearly has a contestatory political content which is shared by the proponents of plagiarism and which is not expressed by more neutral terms such as imitation, intertextuality or repetition. As Steev Hise maintains in answer to whether or not recycling is "a political thing":

It can be. . . . [T]he form has a long history, at least since the early 20th century, of political significance. . . . [T]he reuse of works by other creators calls into question cherished notions of authorship and intellectual property, which causes in turn the questioning of larger assumptions at the foundations of our society, like the very concept of private property in general. Thus a critique of modern capitalism is almost inherent in any thoughtful use of cultural recycling (Hise, 2000).

In spite of the relatively recent origin ("at least since the early 20th century") here claimed for the political significance of recycling, a form of the practice itself has been around for "millennia":

Culture, at least the most interesting (to us) incarnations of it, is continually re-made out of older culture. Inspiration, influence, imitation, it all melts together to make something new, which in turn gets re-used again.
Two very important recent developments make this even more important than it's been for the last few millennia [modern technology and the rise of corporate capitalism] (Hise 2000a).

Recycling is thus both millennia old (when it was known as "inspiration, influence and imitation") and recently important as a contestatory movement intending to combat intellectual property laws which constrict "the healthy growth of culture and exercise of individual creativity" (ibid). The question which is not answered in the pages of the detritus site is my own: if intellectual property laws date back at least to the 18th century (1709 in England, Queen Anne), and if the 19th can be seen as the great era of the rise of capitalism as well as of the industrialisation of culture, why has recycling suddenly acquired the transgressive value which these cultural workers attribute to it? The answer implied by the proponents of digital technology is that contemporary recycling is a subversive response to the attempts on the part of corporate monopolists to limit creativity and its resources which should exist in the common domain. In considering these issues, however, it is important to distinguish between "piracy" and "plagiarism": the first entails the reproduction of copyrighted work for resale without permission or payment; the second is the partial or even complete fraudulent reprise of a preexisting work independent of considerations of copyright, that is, even when the plagiarized work is not copyrighted. Where does recycling fit into these descriptions? On the one hand, the transgressive nature attributed to it, which aims at what are considered unfair or unethical corporate practices supported by equally unfair legal decisions concerning them, seems to situate some forms of radical recycling in the "piracy" arena or, at least, squarely at odds with legal rather than with aesthetic norms. On the other hand, the reuse of discarded, worthless or forgotten cultural material—that which escapes copyright, for example—lends the practice associated with the term rather traditional and untransgressive connotations.

The research group headed by Walter Moser has been engaged in an international project on the concept of cultural recycling. Moser defines his use of the term in the context of a crisis of history of which recycling is not only a symptom, but also a cause and even a consequence. Moser identifies four factors which contribute to the concept of recycling as he defines it. The first two are clearly of 19th century origin, the last two more specific to late capitalism: 1) the commodification of cultural objects and products in which artistic or cultural value becomes transformed into commercial value ; 2) the industrial production or reproduction of works of art, which eliminates the distinction between original and copy; 3) the dematerialisation and manipulation of cultural objects in the era of electronic technologies, where the machine becomes a participant rather than an instrument in the processes of cultural production and reproduction, and 4) globalization in the postcolonial context, both cause and result of the previous three factors, which permits the transcendence of national boundaries and the homogenization of traditional cultures (http://www.fas.umontreal.ca/littco/recyclages/moser.htm).

Situated in the general context of a "crisis of history"—not only of its end but the impossibility of its ending—recycling in this view is not a purely negative symptom of this crisis, but is rather an invitation to rethink history after modernity:

The recrudescence of recycling that does not enter into the logic of history could also be read as the sign that a certain way of thinking about history is over. . . . It could be that the crisis is not of history per se, but of a certain way of conceiving of the historical process, essentially the modernist theory of history. . . .
Cultural recycling could oblige us to consider the possibility of dissociating these two terms [history and modernity] and of conceiving of a historical process outside of modernity (Moser 1996, 47, my translation).4

Neither an apologist for nor a critic of recycling, Moser nonetheless invests the practice with a novelty which is tied specifically to late capitalism via both contemporary technology and economics. As with the concept of "information," which the adepts of the "information age" tried to invent as a new, digital form (Barlow, 1994), the aura of the recycled is situated firmly in a material culture, and within a philosophical crisis which is, if not the end of history, at least the end of modernity and its accompanying illusions concerning identity, subjecthood, authorship and a host of other modernist chimera. Moser's fundamental argument is the specificity of recycling:

The term "cultural recycling" permits us to define a rather precise locus in our contemporary cultural practices and to invite a theoretical reflexion and a critical study of these practices. This locus is that of the citational or cannabilistic dominant constitutive of contemporary cultural life, the specificity of which it is our challenge to explore (1996, 48-49, my emphasis).

Now it is certainly not my intention to challenge Moser's premises concerning the cultural specificity of recycling; indeed, my argument is based on the essential differences that variant terminologies foreground with respect to similar practices, and in this sense, the use and connotations of the term recycling do point out the historico-cultural specificity of contemporary cultural judgments. My question is whether or not the terms of the judgment actually describe a different practice, or simply describe differently a fundamentally stable practice. And in the foregoing paragraph, I have underlined the terms citational and cannibalistic as an indication of the slippage: while citational seems to evoke an ancient practice in rather neutral terms, the connotations of cannibalistic are both strong and, like recycling, ambiguous. The apparent interchangeability of these two terms seems to support the notion that they in fact refer to the same phenomenon which, something like the planet Venus, acquires different identities by virtue of its description.

In light of the foregoing, I will pursue the inquiry of what is being recycled by the term recycling, by re-situating it, according to the comparative approach advocated by Moser, as a form of the practice of imitation in a historical continuum of which it constitutes only the contemporary formation. In other words, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The first element of my argument relies precisely on those technological and economic conditions which are seen as constitutive—both as cause and as effect—of the specificity of recycling. It is, in fact, the emergence of digital technologies and the impetus which they have given to this cultural form which make it appear rather more consistent with previous historical practices than otherwise. Just as, for example, the spread of print technologies gave rise in the 19th century to an unprecedented industry of piracy, the development of technologies enabling fast, transformative and, if desired, anonymous recycling of pre-existing cultural materials could be seen as simply enabling a practice which is itself constitutive of cultural production since the beginning of time. In other words, whether it be considered theft, inspiration or creative transformation, formulas dating back to the biblical notion that there is "nothing new under the sun" (EC 1:9 RSV) remind us that repetition, the eternal return of the already there, is a fundamental mode of existence of human life (perhaps all life) and that the perception of novelty can best be recast as a more or less significant transformation of the already known. Digital and electronic modes of production and reproduction have not engendered the repetitive impulse; and far from impinging on originality or creativity, what they menace is actually property, much in the same way that modern printing presses enabled book piracy and, consequently, the spread and accessibility of knowledge. If recycling has become a greater legal problem in the context of digital technology, it is difficult to understand why it should be essentially different from the same problem in the context of print technology. Does the question of degree (it is faster, easier to diffuse, more anonymous) imply an essential difference of kind?

Post-romantic aesthetic ideology remains profoundly marked by the spectre of originality, and whether or not the postmodern condition of "citationalism" can be shown to be new, different or consonant with past practice, what has been profoundly altered is the aesthetic attitude required to validate such practices. Whereas pre-Romantic imitation was a simple aesthetic fact, requiring merely the addition of the epithet "good" or "bad" to condone or condemn it, post-romantic aesthetics require originality, the repression of imitation, and its substitution by terms which do justificatory ideological work.

Neither imitation nor recycling involves, of course, the "eternal return of the same," for in recycling, what returns is significantly altered, either in its constitutive form or in its function. Proponents of music sampling, for example, perhaps one of the most controversial forms of contemporary recycling, insist on the creative work effected by processes of "recontextualization." Evoking a comparison with the Situationists' technique of détournement, Hise claims that recycling "is a self-conscious mode which uses the power of recontextualization to make important statements—Cultural Recycling has the unique ability of turning the power and (often hidden) meaning of an original text and its author(s) back upon itself" (quoted in Cannon 2002, 1). In describing the work of "plunderphonic" musician Vikki Bennett,5 one critique maintains: "Aside from various garage sales and bargain bins, her sources included BBC call-in shows and other radio transmissions. She takes these puzzle pieces and connects them with tape manipulation and the like so you may never know their true contexts" (Lightwine, 1).

Metaphors of cultural reproduction dating back to Latin times insist on the transformative work required to elevate a product from servile to aesthetic imitation; debates about plagiarism from these times forward depend directly on conflicting claims with respect to what contemporary copyright law terms "significant enhancement." The fact of repetition being presupposed, what remains to be determined is merely a question of degree: not is there repetition, imitation or recycling, but is the "new" work more or less similar to its precedent; does its novelty justify its existence or is it sufficiently derivative to merit censure? Has there been transformative work preformed such that, in the words of the ancients, the bee has created honey, an entirely new product, from the original nectar? The ancient metaphor of the transforming work of the bee is eloquent for us, for it is clearly a metaphor of recycling which, as Moser points out, implies not the return of the identical, but rather its reformation.

In environmental terms, recycling focuses less on detritus, as the excess of what is consumable, than on the unconsumable which is the very object of production. As Steev Hise proclaims in the Detritus Manifesto:

- in nature, detritus is dead plant and animal matter that makes new life possible. The very bottom of the food chain, detritus is the rotting leaves in the forest, the silt on the bottom of the pond, the thick dark mud in the salt marsh. It sticks to your shoes, it smells, but someday it will be food for something else, and that something will be food in turn, on and on up the food chain until you pick it up in the supermarket and put it in your mouth.
Our society spends a lot of time telling us that there is some brand new, fresh cultural produce, generated from thin air and sunshine, slick and clean. They package it with pretty plastic & ribbons and then feed it to us. A lot gets thrown away: the ribbons, the wrapping; culture becomes garbage, or it dies, and rots behind the refrigerator. But the new fluffy shiny stuff still gets churned out, and it gets forced between our teeth. And we are told to swallow it.
We will not swallow. We will chew, and then spit. We will play with our food, and create something new and interesting from it (http://detritus.net/manifesto.html).

Although the distinctions made in this rather convoluted metaphor are less than clear, it seems that detritus as food for thought/creation is the antithesis of garbage, that waste which is the overwhelming object of the contemporary recycling industry. In the majority of cases, what is recycled is the container rather than the contents; or else it is the unconsumable refuse produced by a society bent on consuming the irreproducaible. The irreplaceable nature of nature is, however, a far cry from that of the products of cultural production which circulate in an inexhaustible form which even the proclamation of their exhaustion fails to exhaust. The end of God, history, the subject and even the author has not yet produced the end of "art" (although that may be contested by some).

Detritus appears as the polar opposite of garbage, and it is the latter which is the object of environmental recycling: detritus needs no recycling; as the natural excess of a consumable product it follows a "dust to dust" logic (sometimes known as "composting"). Contemporary waste, however, if recyclable, figures primarily as the return of the excessive—that which is not the wine, not the food, not the object of consumption.

In cultural reproduction nothing is lost, nothing even changes hands, except perhaps for money (which appears to be the crux of the issue), or else symbolic doses of "cultural capital." The recycling metaphor implies that value is created out of the valueless; or, at least, that the object of recycling would have been lost or discarded had it not been retrieved and revived. However, this logic is difficult to connect with the notion of cultural recycling, which would imply the excessive or "waste" nature of cultural material, its clogging up of the landfills of culture, as if there were a limit to the amount of cultural products a society can manage. While this limit may have some reality in library stacks or record collections, it is surely not the material support itself which is the object of cultural recycling and is certainly inappropriate with respect to digital technology, the field in which recycling has apparently become so rampant. Rather, it is as if producing a "new improved" product from the old somehow implies a reduction of excess and the transformation of the formerly valueless into the useful—or at least the re-consumable.

It is at this point that the recycling metaphor breaks down. Steev Hise proposes an analogy between environmental and cultural recycling but fails to pursue the analogy to its (inappropriate) conclusion: "Our disposable civilization is not only polluting the earth with garbage, toxins, and poisons, but it is polluting our infosphere, our mental landscape, with datasmog. By re-using media to create new works of art, we can help to keep our world beautiful just as you can by recycling soda bottles" (Hise 2000b). The ideal form of material recycling is a zero-sum game in which waste disappears completely into new products which in turn are entirely consumed by the twin processes of consumption and recycling. In cultural recycling, however, while nothing is lost, something is always added to the stock of cultural products. Cultural recycling, digital or otherwise, while it may be transgressive to the extent that it retains connotations of—or actually enacts—theft, is difficult to reconcile with the implications of environmental recycling.

Imitation, reproduction, repetition announce their predecessors; recycling, on the other hand, (not the cultural practice, but the metaphor) presupposes their elimination. In previous metaphors, the raw material which is to be reused continues to exist alongside the new product which, in fact, depends on the continuous existence of the original, by virtue of which it acquires a chronological secondarity while aiming to outstrip and overtake in quality the original. In the metaphor of recycling, however, the recycled material is consumed and transformed, leaving nothing if not more detritus/garbage in its wake and producing a new product which, however similar or different to the old, must by definition replace it. The impossible coexistence of the object and product of recycling is another antimony with respect to the application of the recycling metaphor to the cultural realm. And yet, this cyclical nature of recycling and its propensity to eliminate its origins makes the metaphor, for Moser, for example, particularly pertinent to the present cultural and historical moment: "Inside such a system one could theoretically recycle indefinitely. Temporal differences (past-present, present-future) as well as historical dynamics (the present overtakes the past by realizing it; the future is the utopic projection of present projects) would also be practically abolished. This is what throws modern history into crisis" (39).

The spectre of globalization looms large behind this crisis, as communication technology and economic imperialism combine to create a kind of second-wave Renaissance with reverse effects. Whereas from Classical to Neo-classical times the appropriation and "denationalization" of foreign products was precisely the goal of transnational imitation, this was self-consciously at the service of improving the national cultural capital. While "recycling" is accused of levelling and destroying (for better or worse) national cultural specificities, the practice is not substantially different from its classical forerunner, whose goal it was to create the nation's identity in the image of the superior foreign culture by the very act of erasing the marks of the original culture and expropriating them as characteristics of the appropriating one. As Nietzsche has famously said of the Latin appropriation of the Greeks: "In those days, to translate meant to conquer" (The Gay Science, section 83).

To summarize then, recycling situates cultural production in an ethical-political arena and attributes to it a transgressive force, or at least intention, in a way that other more neutral metaphors do not. The negative implications of the term provide a critique which associates cultural production with the material excess of contemporary society and insists on the transformative work inherent in the practice. As opposed to other metaphors, the process invoked by recycling is one which explicitly negates its origins, the new creation implying the elimination of the old. Much has been made of the erosion of cultural and historical memory in this context and this is one of the strongest connotations of the metaphor. In the field of post-modern imitation, recycling is currently competing with the metaphors of plagiarism and appropriation whose connotations are aggressively anti-capitalist rather than ecological.6

Although recycling may seem to do social critical work because of the historical, economic and environmental conditions which have produced it as necessary, what discourages me about the metaphor are its "politically correct" connotations. In contemporary material society, recycling is a necessary measure designed to deal with a problem to which it is radically not the solution. Recycling comforts and encourages the society of excess by providing both producers and consumers with a virtuous means of turning their own garbage into future waste, the mercantile logic of finite resources finally coming back to roost as the limits of the heretofore limitless are starting to be realized.

Compared to appropriation and plagiarism, recycling supports rather than contests the dominant economic mode and it is primarily this consonance which makes it, for me, an uncomfortable metaphor. Either cultural recycling retrieves and improves the lost which would otherwise have been wasted, or it is simply a new "politically correct" term for the age-old and pre-environmental, but nevertheless aesthetically frugal, practice of imitation. I would insist on the fact that the politically correct connotations of the metaphor come as much from the implied critique of the society of excess as they do from the band-aid solution nature of material recycling. While Steev Hise claims contestatory status for his musical recycling, he also claims to work for the good of society, culture, art, individual expression and creativity. The paradox of recycling works of other "creators'" as a means to protect "individual creativity" is presumably lost on Hise.

Recycling is good; I'm all for it and my blue and green boxes are habitually and embarrassingly full. What they however do not contain are items of cultural waste superceded and rendered useless by post-modernists whose inspirations or even primary matter is derived from them. I have not relegated Cervantes to the garbage heap in favour of Kathy Acker; I still have my copy of Un coeur simple and of Flaubert's Parrot; Cotzee has not replaced Tournier who has not replaced Defoe. Overall, cultural recycling has only served to increase my stock of goods, whose value is not undermined—is inevitably increased—by the co-existence of the original and the recycled.

The fundamental inappropriateness of the recycling metaphor is to think of itself as describing a new phenomenon. Alexander Pope attributes to Virgil this description of the aesthetics of imitation and of why he was reading Ennius: "I am looking for gold in dung" (in Peri Bathous: or The Art of Sinking in Poetry, 1728, chap. 9, quoted in Goldgar, 61). If the recycling metaphor has a virtue, it is to be the contemporary epithet for an aesthetics of imitation which has existed relatively uninterrupted since Latin times, in spite of its various disguises and claims to contemporary novelty. What is, however, significantly different in the direction taken by the recycling metaphor is the negative connotation applied to the source material of production. Whereas the objects of pillage, plunder, theft and conquest, like gold hidden in a dunghill, are retrieved or appropriated for their intrinsic value, and are waiting only to be reinserted into a more worthy context, the raw material of recycling is virtually worthless or worse, has a contaminating effect on its environment. Without exception, all other metaphors of imitation which we have discovered, including plagiarism, appropriation and cannibalism, whether they mean to justify or condemn the practice of imitation, uniformly assume that what has changed hands is an object of value, even if in the process of transformation it undergoes improvement: indeed, a common cliché used to deride minor authors who complain of being plagiarized is that "one steals only from the wealthy."

What is most interesting to me about recycling is this remarkable reversal with respect to all other metaphors for imitation: what are the motivations for and the consequences of framing the practice in this way? Moser alludes to the double-edged nature of the metaphor by noting that "it also happens that the product of recycling is not of the same value as the raw material of recycling; the product contains impurities, it is of a lesser quality" (40). I have no idea whether this claim is scientifically founded; after all, there are many ways of recycling waste, some of which do not even entail a transformation of form, but only of function. Translated into the cultural field, the remark echoes a commonplace in the history of European aesthetics up until at least the 18th century: that literary imitation is a necessity founded on the finite amount of worthy cultural goods due to the historical inferiority of the present compared to the past, and that imitation is essential for what it imparts of value to a culturally inferior moment. In other words, a European imitation/translation of an ancient text would necessarily be inferior to the original, but the new product, adhering to the new culture, is nevertheless an improvement over any indigenous production lacking the benefit of the foreign influence.

The recycling metaphor seems here to be being stretched in two different directions at once; on the one hand, the raw material is waste, detritus or at the very least a useless surplus which is transformed into an object of value; on the other hand, the recycled product is itself inferior to the original which only becomes an object of recycling when it becomes worn out, a degraded version of itself. This double bind, which situates cultural production in between two negative spaces; that of the worthless (garbage) and the degraded (detritus), seems to me to be particularly pessimistic or, at least, ungenerous with respect to contemporary cultural production.

How then are we to think of cultural recycling between these two poles? Clearly, the objects of cultural recycling are not garbage, waste or even detritus, although they may not all accrue the degree of economic use-value which would justify their existence. The products of cultural recycling may be better or worse, more or less valuable, than their originals, but not by virtue of the fact of them having been recycled. Cultural production does not fit either the mercantilist or the environmentalist model of the zero-sum game of natural wealth: cultural recycling only increases the total amount of potential cultural waste in the world. Contrary to the modernist crisis-of-history theory, cultural recycling emphatically does not forget its past, nor erase the traces of its history and its affiliation, not, at least, in any material way. Or at least not in any way which appears to me to be substantially different than that practised by Montaigne, for example, when he appropriated classical discourse and translated it into the vernacular into his writing, the better to fool and embarrass pedantic critics into revealing their ignorance by being unable to recognize a classical trope unless it was presented in its original form and who assumed that the "vulgar tongue" could only express vulgar ideas (Montaigne 1991, 458 ).

In much the same way, Stendhal "recycled" his Life of Haydn by erasing both the traces of its Italian author and of his own "authorship," by providing the text with a pseudonymous author, a sure indication that he suspected he was up to no good. In the ensuing debate, which the Italian author Carpani lost hands down in the pages of the French newspaper le Constitutionnel, it is clear that the Life of Haydn was something of a gem, which merited being retrieved from the Italian wasteland even at the expense of its original author: "All in all, the work merited to be translated into French, if it is Italian, and into Italian, if it is French. M. Bombet's [i.e. Stendhal's] book, original or copy, is available in Paris, chez P. Didot, rue du Point-de-Lodi" (quoted in Stendhal, 471). And how not to invoke The Waste Land itself, and that inveterate recycler, T.S Eliot, who may or may not have coined the phrase: "Immature writers imitate, mature writers steal"?

The epidemic of cultural amnesia implied by the connotations of recycling is demonstrably neither a cause nor an effect of contemporary modes of reuse. To cite an aphorism that I have been accused of overusing: "The originality of a work is directly proportional to the ignorance of its readers" (Aquin 1995, 47). Coined in the early 70's this, pre-digital and pre-recycling piece of obvious truth seems to me to be impervious to time and to modes of production and dissemination of cultural goods, and points to the crux of the problem which the recycling metaphor claims to underscore. Not what has been lost, transformed, retrieved or reinserted into cultural circulation as a new product; but rather who remembers the original, who recalls its form and function, and who cares? Robert Merton expresses the same idea as Aquin when, in Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, he describes in the scientific context what he calls "OBI" or "Obliteration by . . . incorporation":

In the source of this hypothesized process, the number of explicit references to the original work declines in the papers and books making use of it. . . . Preferring not to insult their readers' knowledgeability, [writers] no longer refer to the original source. And since many of us tend to attribute a significant idea or formulation to the author who introduced us to it, the altogether innocent transmitter sometimes becomes identified as the originator . . . In the successive transmission of ideas, repeated use may erase all but the immediately antecedent versions, thus producing a historical palimpsest in which the sources of those ideas are obliterated" (311-12).

Here is a description of cultural amnesia which is well suited to explain historical memory lapse and which entails not a metaphorical but a concrete (albeit "hypothesized") process of erasure and overwriting of sources and origins. This process, it must be stressed, described by Merton in 1965, concerns not contemporary issues, but is situated in the context of the transmission of the aphorism "standing on the shoulders of giants"—commonly but erroneously attributed to Newton. Merton's research into the forgetting of the origins of this phrase is a case in point of the age-old phenomenon today referred to as recycling.

It may be said that I have taken the recycling metaphor rather more literally than is needed or justified, and that there is a relatively neutral way to understand its connotations by focussing on the "repetitious" and "cyclical" aspects of cultural reuse and transformation which we have been describing However, since something outside of language—call it "the world" for the time being—is ineluctably modified by the language which is used to describe it, and since discursive change and innovation is always both influential and symptomatic of the ways in which we understand the world, it seems to me that a literal analysis of the excesses of recycling is not itself excessive.

When "plunderphonic" musician Vikki Bennett searches garage sales for discarded vinyl, or records banal sounds such as the "innocuous babble" of talk radio, is she really doing something different from Virgil when he allegedly searched for gold in Ennius' dung? The genius of Virgil was to recognize the gold when he found it, to extract it from the former poet's work and recontextualize it, which sounds like a pretty fitting description of Bennett's "recombinant" techniques.

Not all "recyclers" claim for their art a transgressive force. Indeed, the premier among musical "plunderers," Canada's John Oswald, situates his work in a traditional continuum for which he claims not contestatory but legitimate status. This appeal to both aesthetic and legal legitimacy is most interesting in that Oswald has actually "achieved" transgression. He attempted to avoid legal problems by distributing his work free to radio stations, libraries and the press, but the Canadian Recording Industry Association and Michael Jackson threatened him with legal action resulting in the destruction of the remaining stock and (ironically in the digital age) master tapes.7

Oswald, however, prefers not to capitalize on this successful "transgression" of copyright as monopoly capital.8 Instead he claims legitimacy for his practice in a 1985 essay (previous to the release of his ill-fated but ground-breaking CD):

Piracy or plagiarism of a work occurs, according to Milton, "if it is not bettered by the borrower." Stravinsky added the right of possession to Milton's distinction when he said, "A good composer does not imitate, he steals." An example of this better borrowing is Jim Tenney's "Collage 1" (1961) in which Elvis Presley's hit record "Blue Suede Shoes" (itself borrowed from Carl Perkins) is transformed by means of multi-speed tape recorders and razor blade. . . . Tenney took an everyday music and allowed us to hear it differently. At the same time, all that was inherently Elvis radically influenced our perception of Jim's piece.
Fair use and fair dealing are respectively the American and the Canadian terms for instances in which appropriation without permission might be considered legal. Quoting extracts of music for pedagogical, illustrative, and critical purposes has been upheld as legal fair use. So has borrowing for the purpose of parody. Fair dealing assumes use which does not interfere with the economic viability of the initial work. In addition to economic rights, moral rights exist in copyright. . .. So Elvis's estate, for example, can claim the right to privacy and the right to protection of the special significance of sounds peculiar to a particular artist. . . .
At present, in Canada, a work can serve as a matrix for independent deviations. Section 17(2)(b) of the Copyright Act of Canada provides "that an artist who does not retain the copyright in a work may use certain materials used to produce that work to produce a subsequent work, without infringing copyright in the earlier work, if the subsequent taken as a whole does not repeat the same design as the previous work."
My observation is that Tenney's "Blue Suede Shoes" fulfills Milton's stipulation, is supported by Stravinsky's aphorism, and does not contravene Elvis' morality or Section 17(2)(b) of the Copyright Act (Oswald 1990).

"Plunderphonics" is distinguished from plagiarism—or illegitimate sampling—according to Oswald and his supporters, by the intention of honesty, its critical intent and its artistic integrity, the evidence for which is Oswald's attempt to distribute the work free of charge. Steev Hise supports Oswald's claim to legitimacy to the point of criticizing the term plunderphonics for its connotations of illegitimacy:

The . . . problem is that it carries a connotation of wrongdoing, since the definition of plunder is "to seize wrongfully or by force; steal". In order to achieve some sort of respectability, those who engage in cultural re-use should probably stop describing themselves with words that imply that what they are doing is immoral. The powerful forces who would curtail this type of culture are working hard to teach the average "consumer" that "unauthorized reproduction" is something to be ashamed of, but this sort of cultural activity is not wrong. In fact, it is similar in spirit, if not in form, to folk music and other oral traditions which make use of more intertextual practices than our own print-based and commodified society. However, people love the thrill of transgression, even in today's modern mediasphere, where we're already virtually soaking in rebellion. And so, verbiage that carries the exquisite frisson of rule-breaking and ethical controversy also carries the day (Hise, 2001).

Not only does this art seek traditional forbears and legitimacy, some appreciations of it are steeped in the most traditional criteria for art. In describing Oswald's "recycling" techniques, one reviewer reiterates, probably unconsciously, most of the criteria of good imitation enumerated by Erasmus at the beginning of this essay:

And therein lies the true brilliance of Plunderphonics. As the name implies, Oswald is often able to dive into a popular recording—from Michael Jackson to the Doors—strip its defining characteristics, and turn it into something all his own. The end result embodies many of the characteristics of the original piece, but is imbued with qualities that are often completely contradictory to its nature (Lemay, n.d.).

But Oswald's good intentions, the free distribution of his music and his willingness to cite his sources in order to compensate for the fact that there are "no quotation marks" in music, failed to spare him neither legal wrangles nor the judgment of critics with respect to the "transgressive" nature of his practice.

Garbage or treasure, dung or gold, recycled or imitated, legitimate or illegitimate, new or old, it would seem that the decision is up to the beholder, rather than the recycler. Whether or not there is an intrinsic specificity to the contemporary reuse of cultural materials may also be very much a matter of opinion. Is recycling new? Ask Virgil.

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1. The use of italics for the word recycling are intended to indicate that what is being referred to is the term, rather than the practice.

2. "Je pillai Thèbe et saccageai la Pouille" (Ronsard, Odes, Bk 1, "A sa lyre"); "Pillez-moi sans conscience les sacrés TrĂ©ésors de ce Temple Dëlphique" (Du Bellay, Défence et Illustration de la langue française.)

3. For details of the foregoing, see Randall 2001.

4. All translations of Moser's work which follow are mine.

5. "Plunderphonic composition is a specific, radical form of collage in which all materials have been appropriated from existent music. It is a politically motivated genre which is focused on the notion of free samples and challenging perceived hypocrisy of musical copyright law. The term is derived from the seminal CD by John Oswald called Plunderphonics." ("EARS: ElectroAcoustic Resource Site Music, Technology and Innovation Research Group," De Montfort University, http://www.mti.dmu.ac.uk/EARS/Data/node104.html).

6. The subtitle of Moser's work Recyclages is: Economies de l'appropriation culturelle.

7. "In 1989, Oswald released Plunderphonic, a CD containing manipulations of music by The Beatles, Dolly Parton, Public Enemy, Michael Jackson, and others (and an unflatteringly manipulated photo of Michael Jackson on the cover to drive the point home). Sources were scrupulously credited, with catalog numbers, etc., provided. One thousand copies were produced, with Oswald footing the bill himself and giving them away for free (and specifically stipulating that no copies should be bought or sold). In February 1990, the Canadian Recording Industry Association demanded that Oswald cease distribution and destroy the three hundred remaining copies. Not wanting to fight a potentially costly lawsuit, Oswald complied." (David Mandel, http://www.halcyon.com/robinja/mythos/Plunderphonics).

8. By "successful" I mean a transgressive aesthetic practice which is actually pursued by the courts. Most art for which "subversion" or "transgression" is claimed never achieves this confirmation of its threat to society. For his part, Oswald claims that his intention was not transgressive, and that he made every attempt to avoid breach of copyright.

Works Cited:

Aquin, Hubert (1995) "Profession: écrivain," Point de fuite. Montréal: Bibliothèque québécoise.

Barlow, John Perry (1994) "The Economy of Ideas: A Framework for Rethinking Patents and Copyrights in the Digital Age" Wired, 2.03, March, 84-6; 88-90; 126-129.

Cannon, Rebecca (2002) "Detritus—Copyleft in Action," Cordite #11 (http://cprdote.org.au/11/cannon.detritus.asp).

Erasmus Dialogus Ciceronianus (1986) Trans. Betty Knott, Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 28, Ed,. A. H. T Levis. Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 77-153.

Fiske, George C. (1920) Lucilius and Horace: A Study in the Classical Theory of Imitation. Studies in Language and Literature no. 7. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press.

Goldgar, Bertrand (ed). (1965) The Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope. Regents Critic Series, Lincoln: University of Nebraska.

Hise, Steeve. (1999) "Interview, November 1999," http://detritus.net/illegalart/hise/interview.html

---------------. (2000) "Is this a political thing?" http://detritus.net/faqomatic/cache/22.html.

---------------. (2000a) "Why do you do this?" http://detritus.net/faqomatic/cache/14.html.

---------------. (2000b) "Does this have something to do with the Environmental Movement?" http://detritus.net/faqomatic/cache/11.html.

---------------. (2001) "A special exploration of Plunderphonics," http://www.soundunseen.com/plunderphonics.html.

Home, Stewart, (ed) (1987) Plagiarism; Art as Commodity and Strategies for its Negation. London: Aporia.

----------------- (1995) Neoism, Plagiarism & Praxis. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Horace (1994) Epistles. Ed. Rolant Mayer. Comabridge and New York: Cambridge U.P.

Merton, Robert (1994) On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandyean Postscript. Chicago and London: U of Chicago Press.

Larousse, Pierre. (1866) Grand dictionnaire universel du 19ème siècle. Paris: Administration du grand dictionnaire universel.

Lemay, Matt (n.d.) "Plunderphonics," http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/o/oswald_john/69-plunderphonics-96.shtml.

Lightwine, Alexis (n.d.) "A Period Piece About People Like Us," http://www.xoxmag.com/plu.shtml.

Montaigne, Michel de (1991) "On Books," Bk ii, ch. 10, The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Trans. and ed. M. A Screech: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.

Moser, Walter (1996) Recyclages: Economies d'appropriation culturelle. Montréal: Les éditions Balzac.

Oswald, John (1990) "Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative," The Cassette Mythos, Autonomedia. http://www.plunderphonics.com/xhtml/xplunder.html)

Pope, Alexander (1965) Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope. Ed. Bertrand A. Goldgar. Regents Critics Series, Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press

Randall, Marilyn. (2001) Pragmatic Plagiarism: Authorship, Profit and Power. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Stendhal (1986). Vies de Haydn, Mozart et Metastase. Oeuvres complètes. Vol. 41. Ed. Victor Del Litto and Ernest Abravanel. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints.


About the Author:

Marilyn Randall is a Professor at the University of Western Ontario. Her research currently focuses on three areas; the Quebecois novel since the 1960's, the historical study of Quebecois cultural imagination and questions of literary plagiarism. She has published works in several journals and won the Raymond Klibansky Prize for Humanities publication in English for her book, Pragmatic Plagiarism; Authorship, Profit and Power and received a finalist nomination for the Rene Wellek Award from the American Comparative Literature Association.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Randall, Marilyn. "Recycling Recycling, or plus ça change..." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. June 18, 2024 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/mrandall/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Marilyn Randall, Recycling Recycling, or plus ça change.... Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/mrandall/index.php› (accessed June 18, 2024)

APA Style Citation:
Randall, Marilyn. (2007, May). Recycling Recycling, or plus ça change.... Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/mrandall/index.php


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