ebr Associate Editor Lai-Tze FAN responds to Dani Spinosa's review of llegal Literature: Toward a Disruptive Creativity, by David S. Roh.
In her review of Roh's Illegal Literature: Toward a Disruptive Creativity (Minnesota U Press, 2015), Dani Spinosa describes circumstances around literary works that sample from, mimic, and otherwise appropriate cultural texts. Calling Roh's book “a literary and legal study of authorship and copyright,” Spinosa notes the long history of contention between creative authorship and the publishing industry and economy.
The legal battles explored in Roh's text ask us to reconsider how readership, creativity, and book culture can be understood in relation to ideas of property, creative control, and copyright. It is an important distinction that the "illegal literature" that Roh describes is not the sampling of intertextuality's past. Indeed, when Spinosa observes the shift from writing about authorship theoretically à la Barthes and Foucault to writing about the author in law and economy, I think she points to the transformation of how we understand content today. Content, creative or otherwise, is here framed as information, and the especial ease with which this is done so in an age of digitization (or, as Rockwell and Berendt describe it, “datafication”).
Such a crucial shift in how we think of creative content is tied to our treatment of texts, for instance, by way of copies and copy making. Mechanical and then digital reproduction have made us struggle to define, in scholarship as well as in law, what, in what forms, belong to whom, and as defined by what criteria.
I think of Henry Jenkins' work on participatory cultures (2006) for his description of the consumer as an active producer in their own right: shapers of media products and entire media empires through fan-made art, fiction, and online/offline communities. These consumers, understood also as readers, are not passive, Spinosa holds. What is disrupted in one way, then, are the green light-granting figures of content production, discourse shapers, and canon makers.
In the vein of an imbalanced creative economy, Spinosa notices in Roh a tendency to idealize disruptive creativity: "we cannot praise the polyvocality and 'gift economy' potentials of networked computing (21) without also conceding that not everyone has access to this common." Who is it, we might ask, who’s being left out?
Spinosa is correct that a further exploration of "bad disruption" is needed, and towards outlining one, I identify two kinds. Stealing content that is treated as information, content that is easier to steal because it has been abstracted from original forms as well as from the conditions of production, is not the same as stealing content through privilege—such as when minority individuals and groups have their work or even identities stolen. While there are many examples of this kind of theft throughout creative history, one of note is white American poet Michael Derrick Hudson, whose poetry became well-known after he began to publish under the pseudonym “Yi-Fen Chou”—the name of a Chinese woman that Hudson went to high school with. It is absolutely necessary to make these distinctions in "bad disruption," which we could otherwise call uncritical disruption; the rhetoric of a gift economy of content sharing and sampling culture risks blurring the lines between proposed equal access and a system of privileged access indeed. The fact is that a gift economy cannot wax equality in the same breath that it is omits so many from producing. Who gets to produce and publish disruptive work?
To truly not "disrupt for disruption's sake," there must be a reason to disrupt. There are particular groups that could benefit from this kind of work more than others—and they should be allowed to tell their own stories.