My Arguments with “The Database and the Essay”

“It is true that neither novelty nor invention is requisite  for copyright protection, but minimal creativity is required” (Bender V West Pub. qtd. In Johnson-Eilola, WNM 206).


I am a postmodern by heart, but I don’t understand the meaning of the statement above.  Creativity can be defined as the production or invention of “something that didn’t exist before in the world” (WNM 206), but who is to judge if the production or invention was already in existence before the producer/inventor put it in the world?  Where is the creativity police?  I imagine they must have their plate full.  “Minimal” is a quantifying term, as in “a little bit.”  How can we discern, then, whether a production or invention is only “minimally new?”  Not only would it be difficult, in the first place, to determine beyond the shadow of a doubt whether something is “new” or “old,” but it would seem nearly impossible to determine if it is only “a little bit new.” How “little” is a little bit?  I get a headache just thinking of all the possible and plausible answers to this question.  And I am reminded of John Barth in his seminal essay on (literary) postmodernism, “The Literature of Exhaustion” (yes, this is a “deep link” and I share it unapologetically)  in which he quotes an editor of Jorge Luis Borges: “For [Borges] no one has claim to originality in literature; all writers are more or less faithful amanuenses of the spirit, translators and annotators of pre-existing archetypes” (73).  This sounds like a modest and elegant philosophy; however, even Borges’s works are copyrighted.  In Borges’s most notable book, Labyrinths, I get lost in his wit, and I can’t separate the fact from the fiction, as the author is infamous for blending and blurring reality and make-believe.  So, returning to Johnson-Eilola’s point, what is “truth”?  What is “creativity”? (What’s “new”/what’s old?) And, how can we put a retail price on “little bits” of intellectual property?

But despite our postmodern climate of intertextuality, new media, shared authorship and regulated intellectual property, we still need to take responsibility -and hold our students accountable -for meaning making.  “[C]ommunities create contingent meanings through a process of negotiation, with specific articulations made real only in concrete, specific contexts. So common meanings arise through shared usage, but those meanings are also open to debate and change” (WNM 207).  As far as I’m concerned, Composition is a field in which we teach clear written communication, which goes against the chaotic tenets of postmodern theory.  Even though we are in a postmodern time, we still need to teach our students to make sense of the world, their thoughts and how to go about producing meaningful texts.

As for the economics of intellectual property in “chunks” as opposed to whole texts, I need to ask this question: is academic conversation and inquiry a commodity or a practice for developing our intellectual lives?  I understand the regulation of paying for rights of use of large “properties” such as textbooks and even hefty college readers, assuming that they present complete works (full articles and essays).  But does this mean that we need to ask permission to quote from other scholarship in our own writings and handouts?  Let’s say I have a block quote of 400+ words that I insert into a writing prompt – should I have to ask permission to use this “property” from the publishers?  Should I be expected to pay for the use?  If this is the direction in which regulation is going, as I am hearing from Johnson-Eilola, then nobody will want to quote “chunks” of other texts anymore.  How will we deal with this?  What materials will we be left with as our teaching offerings?   Somebody please tell me that this regulation won’t also fall onto students writing papers!  How will we teach our students to deal with it?  Many students are resistant to conversing with other scholars as it is – what will happen when they have to seek permission to use every single quote?  Will they wait for a response?  Will they pay for it if required?  Please tell me this isn’t where we’re headed!

Then, there’s the independent scholar who wants to self-publish eBooks and sell them for a buck.  She wants to join in the conversation and will have many quotes from many previous texts in her essays and inquiries.  Does she have to seek permission from every single publisher to reproduce two and three-sentence quotations that are already properly crediting the respective authors of “little bits of creativity”?  What percentage of a book’s one-buck-profit will a publisher expect to get for a two-sentence quotation of a scholarly article published in 1988?  This scenario may seem hypothetical, but it’s not.  I am currently editing an indie book on piano practice, and I honestly don’t know what “fair use” is anymore.  (I would appreciate any advice, if you happen to have it).

“We can’t separate writing from the economic sphere” (WNM 212).  I don’t know what do to with this statement either.  As I read the words and decode their meaning, I say that we must certainly can and even should separate writing from economics (unless you’re writing about economics).  I understand that we must deal with the regulations and restrictions that come along, and we should also pass this wisdom onto our students, but what exactly does Johnson-Eilola mean?  And why does she list this as the first item under “New Responsibilities in Construction?”

Some random final notes:  I found the idea of “writing as architecture” fascinating and, indeed, New Media writing is much more like “building” something than plain text could ever be. I am also indebted to the author for the long section on weblogs, which is a big help for my research project, and for the different digital assignments and exercises we can use in the composition classroom.


Information Commodification




Johndon Johnson-Eilola’s article “The Database and the Essay” argues that postmodern definitions of writing have begun to be accepted and popularized by the general public. If we accept the general premise of postmodernism that ideas are formed in context and in social situations and don’t stem from individual genius, we are then faced with the issue of authorship and ownership. Johnson-Eilola points to intellectual property law and the erosion of fair use rights, arguing that language and text has become commodified within a capitalist system, “put into motion…forced to earn its keep by moving incessantly” (203).  This idea of breaking texts into fragmented parts so that they will fit within the avenues of capitalist circulation has quite serious implications for original ownership. When texts are broken into smaller and smaller pieces, allowing for easier commodification, and then continually repurposed into new forms, how can we define authorship and originality? The deconstruction of meaning from a single textual object into an interconnected web of linkage and in-text citation has not created a “communal web of shared experiences,” as Johnson-Eilola claims was originally predicted (204).  What has instead emerged is the commodification of intellect with the continual breaking down and reformulation of texts and ideas, each recombination generating profitable value.

This issue can be viewed in terms of the broader debate over what is writing and what is mere compilation. We generally define writing as involving a creative process that results in the formation of a unique text containing original thought. This is taught in academic settings and grounds most writing pedagogy. However new competing definitions of writing that lean toward postmodernism argue that language is a continual social construction, so is completely arbitrary and that this applies to texts as well. There is a marked shift from thinking of texts as discrete objects to now viewing them as unpredictable, fragmented elements that are constantly reconfigured and reconnected. Johnson-Eilola argues that this shift is important because it “opens a path away from thinking of intellectual property as a work– as a relatively extended, coherent whole– and toward thinking of it as marketable chunks” (209).  By viewing any type of text within these financially geared terms, issues of ownership become problematic. If texts and ideas are continually reformulated, who holds proprietary rights?

Attempts at answering this question have become more urgent and relevant as blogs and linking further complicate the idea of ownership. Traditionally citation and reference within texts is considered necessary and socially valuable and has always been free, but now companies claim that linking within a website destroys their economic model of users moving “top-down” through the site viewing advertisements along the way. If users are linked to a page deep within the site, they miss relevant advertising and the company is not paid. The contrast between the academic argument that information should be free and the economic model claiming that information should circulate and thus earn money can be reduced to the rather difficult issue of information commodity. On one side we have academics arguing that knowledge and texts reside outside of the economic sphere while simultaneously constructing institutions that collect money in exchange for knowledge. And on the other side we have the postmodernists and corporations that fragment and circulate texts, profiting from this continual exchange of information. Though these sides claim to be in constant and bitter debate, their practices are incredibly similar. Does this then de-value the argument? Aren’t both institutions essentially attempting to control the same thing?



My Unoriginal Thoughts on Originality

In Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom, Will Richardson quotes journalist Dan Gillmor: “If my readers know more than I do (which I know they do), I can include them in the process of making my journalism better” (4). In response, I wrote this marginalia: “Does journalist-blogger Dan Gillmor turn his readers ‘who know more than [he does]’ about some things into collaborators or sources?” I then considered this for a few moments, erased the question mark, replaced it with an em dash, and wrote, “or is the line between collaborators and sources not so clear anymore? We act like this line is still pretty clear, for the most part, in academia—postmodern assaults on the concept of the author notwithstanding.” And I would add (to my own remarks), courts act like this line is still pretty clear. It matters whether a court of law considers you a proper journalist or not. (Although, lately, in the environment of the Obama administration’s “war on leaks,” it matters less than it traditionally has.)

A couple days after having this interaction with Gillmor’s text, I had something of an ah-ha moment while reading J. Elizabeth Clark’s “The Digital Imperative: Making the Case for a 21st-Century Pedagogy.” Clark asserts, about the effects of the invention and popular adoption of the printing press, “[W]ith the mechanized reproduction of text, the ability to alter a manuscript with marginalia, or to comment on previous marginalia, disappeared. Gutenberg’s invention interrupted the rich tradition of interaction with a text” (23). I underlined and starred this quotation and turned over the page to its blank side to do some writing and unpack the quotation. I wrote, “I think Clark is saying here that one could alter the actual text with marginalia, since there would have been very few copies of the text in the world (and probably only one for a given area, or even country or continent). Therefore, one could actually alter the text itself. One would not be altering a version of the text (one paperback among millions) but (transportation and communication being so limited) the text. Isn’t this something we can do now in the comments section of an article on the internet?” Having written this, I felt proud of myself for unpacking what Clark was saying and especially proud of myself for the question I asked linking the idea I unpacked to the collaborative nature of web 2.0 texts.

When I read the next paragraph in “The Digital Imperative,” in which Clark performs the same unpacking I did and makes the same connection I made, I was pretty disappointed. I had been scooped! I felt like Elisha Gray, who (the story goes) invented the telephone independently of Alexander Graham Bell but, since he got to the patent office a mere two hours after Bell did,  got none of the credit.

All of this made me think of an exchange I had with a literature professor about intellectual property a few years ago. She was discussing the virtues of collaborative writing, and I asked, “If I write collaboratively, how will I know my ideas from the ideas of my partners?” She proceeded to tell me that a merging of ideas is kind of the point. I saw her point (which was, of course, not her point, but it’s hard to get away from the language of intellectual property), and in the last few years this point has been making more and more sense to me. As evidenced by my reaction to being “scooped,” though (to someone else arriving at an idea I thought was mine before I arrived at it), I have not entirely left behind my feeling that people can own ideas. I tell my students that all writing is collaborative and that they shouldn’t get hung up on the notion that they need to have totally original ideas for their work to be good. When I tell them this, I am also speaking to myself.

Lessig’s Ted Talk

Just watched Larry Lessig’s Ted talk, The Laws that Choke Creativity. Then I surfed onto his blog. Then I watched what he is up to lately, meditations on the social remix . (After watching this blip tv video I am thinking about open source again. I know that Lessig is really into Creative Commons. I’m wondering about Lessig’s idea of free air space; the idea that everyone should be free to fly transnational flights in public airspace. In March 6, video he says that copyright has been extended so that “no one could do to Disney what Disney did to the Brother’s Grimm” (Ted Talk posted by Lessig on bliptv, Mar 06, 2010). I want to drink the cool aid. Open source is a great idea. I want everything to be in the public domain so it can be remixed. My publisher just sent contracts explicitly defining what parts of my published work they will own in perpetuity. So I guess my question is how can the culture of capitalism and ownership work with the idea of Creative Commons? It is an institutional values thing. I feel like we are in another 1980’s canon war, only around intellectual property and socially created multimodal texts.