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Retyping an entire book is one thing. Cutting & pasting an entire book is another.
Nam June Paik “Magnet TV” (1965)
There’s been an explosion of writers employing strategies of copying and appropriation over the past few years with the computer encouraging writers to mimic its workings. When cutting and pasting are integral to the writing process, it’d be mad to imagine that writers wouldn’t exploit these functions in extreme ways that weren’t intended by their creators.
With all of the twentieth century’s twisting and pulverizing of language and the hundreds of new forms proposed for fiction and poetry, it never occurred to anybody to grab somebody else’s words and present them as their own. Borges proposed it in the form of Pierre Menard, but even Menard didn’t copy — he just happened to write the same book that Cervantes did without any prior knowledge of it. It was sheer coincidence, a fantastic stoke of genius combined with a tragically bad sense of timing.
If we look back at the history of video art — the last time mainstream technology collided with art practices — we’ll find several precedents for such gestures. One that stands out is Nam June Paik’s 1965 “Magnet TV,” where the artist placed a huge horseshoe magnet atop a black and white television, eloquently turning a space previously reserved for Jack Benny and Ed Sullivan into loopy, organic abstractions. The gesture questioned the one-way flow of information: in Paik’s version of TV, you could control what you saw: Spin the magnet and the image changes with it. Up to that point, television’s mission was a delivery vehicle for entertainment and crystal clear communication. Yet a simple artist’s gesture upended television in ways that both users and producers were unaware, opening up entirely new vocabularies for the medium while deconstructing myths of power, politics and distribution which were embedded — but hitherto invisible — in the technology.
The cut-and-paste function in computing is being exploited by writers like Paik’s magnet was for TV. While home computers have been around for three decades and people have been cutting and pasting all that time, its the sheer penetration and saturation of broadband that makes the harvesting of masses of language easy and tempting. On a dialup, although it was possible to copy and paste words, in the beginning (gopherspace), texts were doled out one screen at a time. And even though it was text, the load time was still considerable. With broadband, the spigot runs 24/7.
By comparison, there was nothing native to the system of typewriting that encouraged the replication of texts. It was incredibly slow and laborious to do so. Later, after you finished writing, then you could make all the copies you wanted on a Xerox machine. As a result, there was a tremendous amount of twentieth-century post-writing print-based détournement: William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups and fold-ins and Bob Cobbing’s distressed mimeographed poems are prominent examples. The previous forms of borrowing in literature, collage and pastiche — taking a word from here, a sentence from there — were developed based on the amount of labor involved. Having to manually retype or hand-copy an entire book on a typewriter is one thing; cutting and pasting an entire book with three keystrokes — select all / copy / paste — is another.
A few years ago I was lecturing to a class at Princeton. After the class, a small group of students came up to me to tell me about a workshop that they were taking with one of the most well-known fiction writers in America. They were complaining about her lack of pedagogical imagination, assigning them the types of creative writing exercises that they had been doing since junior high school. For example, she had them pick their favorite writer and come in next week with an “original” work in the style of that author. I asked one of the students which author they chose. She answered Jack Kerouac. She then added that the assignment felt meaningless to her because the night before she tried to “get into Kerouac’s head” and scribbled a piece in “his style” to fulfill the assignment. It occurred to me that for this student to actually write in the style of Kerouac, she would have been better off taking a road trip across the country in a ’48 Buick with the convertible roof down, gulping Benzedrine by the fistful, washing ’em down with bourbon, all the while typing furiously away on a manual typewriter, going 85 miles per hour down a ribbon of desert highway. And even then, it would’ve been a completely different experience, not to mention a very different piece of writing, than Kerouac’s.
Instead, my mind drifted to those aspiring painters who fill up the Metropolitan Museum of Art every day, spending hours learning by copying the Old Masters. If it’s good enough for them, why isn’t it good enough for us? The power and usefulness of the act of retyping is invoked by Walter Benjamin, a master copyist himself, in the following passage where he extols the virtue of copying, coincidentally invoking the metaphor of the road:
“The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one if flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out. The airplane passenger see only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands… Only the copied text commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, the road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of him mind in the free flight of day-dreaming, whereas the copier submits to its command.” (Benjamin, Reflections)
The idea of being able to physically get inside a text through the act of copying is an appealing one for pedagogy: I would think that should this student have retyped a chunk — or if she was ambitious, the entirety — of On The Road. Wouldn’t she have really understood Kerouac’s style in a profound way that was bound to stick with her?