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  • Toward an Open Source Poetics: Appropriation, Collaboration, and the Commons
  • Stephen Voyce (bio)

Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century.

—Mark Getty, Chairman of Getty Images (2000)1

The new artistic paradigm is distribution.

—Kenneth Goldsmith, word processor (2002)2

Software programmers first introduced the term open source to describe a model of peer production in which users are free to access, modify, and collaborate on software code. Programmer and open source advocate Eric S. Raymond offers a useful analogy: whereas software had been previously built like cathedrals, “carefully crafted by individual wizards . . . working in splendid isolation,” open source methods “seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches.”3 The term has since entered the lexicons of innumerable cultural disciplines to denote the permissible appropriation and modification of any technique, object, or model—both in digital environments and in tangible ones. Elements of this commons-based method of production can be found in Wikipedia, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, Anonymous, urban communal garden projects, Ensembl’s [sic] genome database, the BioBricks Foundation, and a host of nonprofit organizations4—leading Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri to call for “an open-source society” of shared social programming.5 Applied to literature, the term evocatively brings into focus a number of issues relating to authorship and intertextuality, “intellectual property” and the public domain, poetic license and collective artistic production. One might speak of an open source poetics or commons-based poetics based on a decentralized and nonproprietary model of shared cultural codes, networks of dissemination, and collaborative authorship. [End Page 407]

Over the past decade, flarf and conceptual poets—many of them affiliated with a website called UbuWeb—have adopted appropriative strategies akin to open source’s “great babbling bazaar” of peer production. Ara Shirinyan, Judith Goldman, Robert Fitterman, Caroline Bergvall, Bill Kennedy, M. Nourbese Philip, Craig Dworkin, and Kenneth Goldsmith variously assemble poetic material taken from the public domain; Rachel Zolf enlists eighty-five writers to help her coproduce a multiauthored poem to be submitted as a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) project at a reputed university; and Darren Wershler-Henry collates no less than 250 proposals for literary and artistic projects, encouraging the reader to appropriate, modify, and execute any number of them she wishes; whereas Christian Bök is currently implanting a poetic sequence into a living bacterium, which will then “coauthor” a mutated version of his poem.6

Of course, appropriation as an artistic tactic is hardly new. While digital technologies expand the possibilities of appropriative art and writing, such techniques can be found among a litany of modernist, dada, fluxus, pop, conceptual, and bio artists; situationist filmmakers; visual and sound poets; and affiliates of the New York school, Oulipo, Language Poetry, and so on. Indeed, the objet trouvé, mixed-media collage, and installation work in art; sampling and plunderphonics in music; creative plagiarism and pastiche in prose fiction; “writing through” techniques, aleatoric verse, constraint procedures, “flarfist” data mining, and “uncreative writing” in poetry—one finds examples of appropriation among all of these discrepant practices.7 The history of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century avant-garde is a history of plundering, transforming, excavating, cataloguing, splicing, and sharing the creative output of others. Needless to say, this brief taxonomy is but a snippet of experimental practices, to say nothing of the numerous other uses of appropriation among folk cultures, popular music, fan fiction, animation, mashups, and so on. All literature is borrowed to varying degrees, insofar as genres, forms, and language are shared, and condition the possibility of all communication and cultural production. Acts of appropriation are ultimately shaped by our attitudes toward originality, authorship, property, and the ontological status of art objects. Although it may seem obvious, appropriation can be considered subversive only if a given society, and its attendant legal apparatus and cultural institutions, deem it illicit.

To this end, it is no coincidence that the approximate beginning of artistic modernism is roughly commensurate with a gradual, yet unprecedented, expansion of copyright reform in the United States and abroad.8 Indeed, the avant-garde—with its processual, appropriative, and collaborative proclivities—evolves alongside an intellectual property scheme [End Page 408] whose reliance...


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