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.