Beauties of Second Use
Anyone who’s every split a fingernail trying to pry the plastic tabs off a newly-purchased CD or DVD shares with me a grudge, whether they know it or not, against the monoliths of the culture industry for their empty, obnoxious war on second-hand merchandise. For, what are those redundant tabs for except as a kind of over-protesting evidence of the ‘newness’ of the product, a way to distinguish the object from its otherwise identical second-hand counterpart? Ironically, it was the freedom of digital media from the entropic effects of time and use that was originally sold as one of its bragging points. Yet this easy reusability seems to have aroused an anxiety on the part of the Hollywood studios and the music industry. This kind of discomfort is what Freud called “a narcissism of minor difference”: the principle which explains why predominantly similar groups fetishize the negligible details that distinguish them, and deny their more essential commonality: Serbs and Croats, so long intermingled that we have trouble telling them apart, obsess over the minutiae that divide them. Old vinyl was crackly, unreliable, the cardboard packaging scuffed; used Cds are pretty much the same thing as new – in fact, the digital content is utterly indistinguishable. Talk about minor differences. So, the makers of the new attack the purveyors of the used.
The same hostility explains traditional publishing’s attacks on on-line marketplace for second-hand books, which is no different, of course, in its essence, from used bookstores (and it was used booksellers who created the site of the modern bookstore we now celebrate as a stronghold of old values – new books used to be sold directly from the publisher, or read at commercial lending libraries). By analogy, the same explanation covers the preemptive dismissals by established authors and the editors of traditional newspapers and magazines of the literary and intellectual potentialities of on-line literary culture. Bastions of cultural capital, under imagined pressure, behave much the same as strategists for older busines models in a panic about losing a market share. Ironically, the proliferation of ‘litblogs’ and other paraliterary activity on-line is proof of the healthy continued relevance of literary culture, not a warning of its imperilment, just as a thriving culture of used books and book collecting, resulting in exchanges of value not contained in the publisher’s ledgers, are nonetheless evidence of the thriving of the publisher’s continued activities in a wider sense. In both cases the “establishment” has mistaken a symptom of the vitality of their realms for warnings that their preserves are under attack in what they’ve decided is a zero-sum game. The same observation can be extended to the reactionary psychology of foundations or literary estates attempting to control the “proper” use or interpretation of existing artifacts of culture. Not only can parodies, samples, appropriations and translations (of Beckett into blackface, or whatever) never be ultimately controlled, they’re the best sign that a work is culturally alive, in a sense for which its creator should only be thankful.
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