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Anthropological Quarterly 77.3 (2004) 521-530

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Copyright and Taboo

University of Chicago

One hundred and fifty years ago, stories were coming from the colonial frontier of natives who believed that twins were birds, that blood bound people together, and that people's fingernails could be used to ensorcel them. The going theory was that non-Europeans were confused. They had a "primitive mentality" which could not clearly distinguish between things which were in fact distinct. Levy-Bruhl (1978) argued that mentalité primitif confused nature and culture, humans and inanimate objects, and cause and effect while Frazer (1958) formulated his famous laws of similarity and contagion. The work of both authors—despite their current political incorrectness—marked a genuine step towards the culture concept. Both men based their theories on news from the colonies, from which stories about people in the "savage slot" (Trouillot 1991) were coming in thick and fast. One of the most common and enduring—albeit spurious—of these sorts of tropes revolves around cameras. "The natives" would not allow whites to take their picture because cameras could "steal their souls." The imperial explanation was simple: these people had a "primitive mentality" and confused their soul with their image. Rational Europeans knew better: they could tell the difference between a picture and the thing it depicted. Their thoughts were clear and distinct, freed from the miasma of an earlier, less discerning age. [End Page 521]

It may come as a bit of a surprise, then, to consider the events of 8 April 2002 when Tipper Gore gave a speech at American University in Washington DC. During the course of the speech, a student protestor began video-taping Mrs. Gore and was asked to stop. When he refused, a scuffle ensued in which he was handcuffed, led away, and the tape confiscated. Amongst the charges laid against him by the disciplinary committee at AU was possession of stolen property—by which was meant the image and likeness of Tipper Gore (Argetsinger 2002).

It is ironic to note that now, nearly a century after The Golden Bough, contemporary thought on intellectual property undertakes contortions eerily similar to the "native point of view" that Frazer and Levy-Bruhl considered their first world compatriots to be above. Don't get me wrong—I would never tarnish the reputation of the world's indigenous people by ascribing to them the same level of civilizational development as Tipper Gore. And while I would use many terms to describe the colossal literature on intellectual property, "primitive" and "undeveloped" are not among them. However, I do believe that the cultural underpinnings of American intellectual property law and the more traditionally anthropological literatures on taboo and Melanesian personhood are related. In this paper I will metonymically gloss both these topics under the heading "copyright" and "taboo." How, I ask, can one shed light on the other, and how can such a combination allow us to understand the cultural forces at play in the Tipper Gore example?

In anthropology, particularly the anthropology of classically "savage slot" locations such as Melanesia, we have a tendency to draw a division between "us" and "them"—"they" have partible personhood (Strathern 1988, but see also her later work such as 1992) and "we" imagine ourselves as "possessive individuals" (MacPherson 1962). Anthropological critiques of American common sense such as Marshall Sahlins' critique of the "native anthropology of western cosmology" (2000) seek to undermine our assumptions by showing how culturally specific they are—we're prudish, but they (over in Samoa) are much more open about sex, and so forth. On this account, it's their difference from us that makes the critique powerful.

Here, I'll argue that copyright and taboo are alike because they are both responses to the same existential predicament: the fact that our identities and senses of self are always already rooted in the inevitableness of our bodies even as they exceed our corporeality. In realm of taboo, this troubling confusion is figured in terms of the body while copyright figures this dilemma in terms of an individual's creative output. In this...


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