Boon, Marcus. In Praise of Copying. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.


  • B. recalls Baudrillard’s meditations on Disney World as “model” or produced, intentionally designed space that recalls another space but can exist in almost any place. . . an inorganic simulation of the original space.
  • B. notes that in this book he’s going to argue that copying is what makes us human and is a fundamental condition for human life (3).  If this is the case then B. acknowledges that the broader culture needs to reconsider how we approach and value copies.
  • A fundamental contradiction:  students are expected to copy all the time at school: repeating information, quoting, memorization; however, they are aware that they are expected not to copy . . . especially not to plagiarize! (5)
  • States and corporations have redefined/defined terms like property, ownership, originality, and authenticity in the beginning of the 21st century (5-6).
  • This isn’t a book about copying ethics; rather, it is an argument that the fundamental human condition is a entangled in a “dynamics of mimesis.”
  • B. notes that the way that “copying” is understood in the Euro-American tradition is operating as the philosophic frame through which non-Western countries are subjected to the regimes of copyright.  This not only renders epistemic violence but ignores some non-Western traditions surrounding the idea of copying.  B. claims that by turning to Mahayana Buddhism he will articulate other ways of understanding “copying” that will enable a rethinking of terms like “subject, object, same, different, and the other” (7).
  • B. argues that the popular practices of copying contain a politics that resists the “dominant logic of late capitalism” and operates in a semi-autonomous nature (recalling the common, community, collective, and multitude) (8).
  • B. acknowledges that copying is neither inherently good or bad . . . rather, it depends on to what use copying is put (10).

Chapter 1: What is a Copy?

  • In answering the question, “What is a copy?” B. first turns to Plato’s work on mimesis.  For Plato (and Heidegger) the copy is something whose “outward appearance” looks like something else . . . the outward appearance is a replication of the idea or essence that shows itself (19).  Yet, the producer of such a copy is where Plato draws the line between ideal form and copy:  the craftsman and the painter are artists who can’t get at the essence like the Gods.
  • B. claims that IP law is built around Platonic concepts.  In this scheme originality is the ability to make a material expression of an idea (21).
  • B. notes that Deleuze (commenting on Nietzsche’s ‘reverse Platonism’) notes that any Platonic Idea is always accompanied by a swarm of simulacra, fakes, and copies that threaten it, distort it, etc. . . and D. grants these copies ontological relevancy & rights (as objects) (23).
  • IP is really, at this point, an institutional instantiation of Foucault’s “author-function” where in the hegemonic historical-social-political institutions legitimize discourse about property rights management in a way that authorship and ownership can be assigned to any discrete entity (24).
  • B. explains that Mahayana Buddhism seeks to account for the ways that the phenomenal world appears to us, and then looks to establish the true nature of this appearance (27).  Based on the premise of essencelessness, the copy could not exist for if an object did have an essence it could not be copied because the outward expression of that essence could only appear in the singular (because an essence is, by definition, fixed and solitary); as such, the copy wouldn’t be possible.  So, in our world of authenticity and copy, the authenticity of any object is dependent on various contingent, relative causes and conditions – authenticity is rhetorical (27-8).  Using this logic, B. argues that it is an objects essencelessness that allows it to be copied while at the same time this essencelessness allows us to see any appearance at all (29).
  • Considering difference and sameness:  B. recounts some Buddhist and poststructuralist philosophy in order to explain the contradiction of differentiation:  differentiation depends on sameness to exist . . . something can only be cognitively differentiated as a separate form once it has been excised from a field of similarity (Buddhism).  This shares much in common with the Derridean conception of differance or the idea that all meaning is semiotically free-floating, contingent, and dependent on the interdependent, groundless change of significations.  Relying on Benjamin B. notes that the “co emergent nonsensuous similarity” of things provides the conditions through which anything designated as “sensuous” can be rendered visible (31).  All these traditions point to the necessity of sameness if a discovery of difference or what some have called a “reversed mimesis” wherein every appearance is actually a mark of emptiness (or sameness).
  • Nagarjuna’s Paradox:  “If things lack fundamental natures, it turns out that they all have the same nature, that is, emptiness, and hence both have and lack that very nature” (32).  So, emptiness is both a relative and absolute necessity – a truth that is paradoxical in its specificity and universalism.  The realization of both of these things at the same time is called samadhi or enlightenment or nonduality.  Samadhi describes a situation wherein “appearance appears, production is produced, and manifestation manifests, without there being any locatable essence to them” (33).  B. describes this as a rhetoric of holism (relying on Robert Magliola) (33).  So, IP relies on this paradox to function:  we depend on the interdependence of sameness in order to differentiate our object from the sameness of the void while at the same time excluding the claims of that interdependent ontology on the grounds of authenticity (ignoring the role of the Other in the definition of the I).
  • The process of “bonding” or “a set of intentions, practices, and structures that work to produce the experience of subjective and objective things” is where the historical, political, cultural, and social forces and energies are configured in particular constellations to give a thing an aura of authenticity or imitation (35).
  • B. notes that Derrida points out in an essay entitled “Economimesis” that the moment at which the craftsman and painter/poet were differentiated by different incentives (economic incentive in the craftsman while the poet/painter doesn’t have an economic motivation) is precisely the time wherein copyright law came into being (38).
  • A paradox:  IP law relies on essences (or the discourse of essence) to argue for protectability of property; however, this protectability is then mass produced in manufactured production (copies!) (38).

Chapter 2: Copia, or The Abundant Style

  • “Copy” comes from the Roman word “copia” meaning “abundance, plenty, multitude” (41).[1. I think there is a connection to be made between “copia” and “multitude” should you hope to extend the work you’re doing with IP and Hardt/Negri.]  Doing some etymological work in Roman mythology, B. traces how copia can be traced back to meaning both abundance and the deployment of abundance (45).
  • B. explains (again relying on Derridean articulations of mimesis) that all economies are predicated on copy as an act of exchange because exchange operates as an equivalence between a and b – they are alike in some way (or in ratios to one another) (46).  Economies operate differently: sacrificial economies require sacrifice for prosperity, capitalist economy makes everything equivalent through the use of exchange value and money and gift economy operates through complex systems of reciprocity and the act of giving always produces excess (which must at some point be reciprocated by pulling from the “dynamic, shifting abundance”) (46).
  • B. draws attention to the connection of Roman rhetoric and copying (copia, imatatio) as a positive before tracing the word through the Renaissance toward the Enlightenment in order to demonstrate when “copy” became a derogatory term used to refer to a degraded version of an original (48).
  • B. claims that it is entirely likely that the different constituents of the multitude – be they in the Global North or South – can coalesce around one social practice: the practices of copying, affirmation of abundance, and a particular attitude toward mimesis that enables these groups to contest total integration into the capitalist market system (51-3).
  • B. turns to iTunes as an example of a capitalist practice of co-opting subcultural or folk cultural forms and commodifying them for distribution.  In contradistinction, B. offers the mixtape – a cultural form that embodies Roman classical rhetoric (inventio, dispositio, and electutio) outside that bounds of capitalist commodification (55).
  • B. notes that the mixtape, p2p networks, and folk performances are all instantiations of gift economies that rely on reciprocity to function; in fact, some p2p networks (like the ones you study!) actually “encode the reciprocity of gift giving through the monitoring of upload/download ratios” (59).
  • The ecologies of essence (via stories, reviews, improvisations, embellishments, etc.) that surround an essenceless object are what is exchanged in the gift economy – not the object itself (60).  But how can this be?
  • Badiou (in a response to Deleuze’s theory of “the event”) asks a fundamentally important question:  how can we account for the way a  particular form arises out of a groundless, infinite excessive multiplicity?  First, rhetorics are used.  A rhetoric is the “skill and knowledge that make the production of an event possible” (64).  According to B., “rhetorics of copia” are modes wherein a folk practice is made to appear “with no prior or more solid ground than knowledge of the practices that lead to their production or revelation” (64).  These rhetorics of copia are particularly visible in music wherein sound is called forth from the vastness of chaos, aligns into multiple rhythms and melodies, solicits “collective joy”, is completely transferable/portable and resists commodification (in folk forms) (65).
  • Rhetorics of copia also draw attention to the fact that the marketplace isn’t simply a space wherein the rhetoric of persuasion solicits consumer purchase through flashy visuals; rather, the rhetorics of copia draw attention to the fact that in a sea of sameness difference becomes apparent in the “moment of encounter, exchange, and performance” (66-7).  B. goes on to highlight how hip-hop (amplification, fragmentation and recombination, distribution) and Jamaican dub embody the rhetorics of copia through the electronic variation of an infinite number of possible mixes.  As B. notes, “Hip-hop is an extraordinarily vital example of how to make a culture from copying – how to respond to the industrial world with its particular discourses of copying, along with its vast colonial legacies of enslavement and mimetic appropriations of bodies, cultures, and environments, and how to call upon a counterphilosoophy of copia (with roots in West African culture, with roots in Bakthinian folk culture) and make it work” (69).
  • What is style?  For B. (and the breakdancers he talked to in this section) style is a way of copying or imitating that incorporates some level of individuality (even in the act of copying).  In praise of folk cultural style, B. notes that style in hip-hop isn’t some epiphenomena that occurs in parallel with capitalist production; rather, it is something far more powerful as it is a way that individuals in mass culture transform their mimetic world.  Because folk cultures are the engines of capitalist commodification they are always powerful in their styles – their ways of making real, authentic copies (72).  As B. notes, “The users of such styles know how to work with things that don’t belong to them, and they realize that nothing belongs to anyone – that everything has already been done many times in the past, but that every moment is in some sense unique, and to be newly fabricated” (73).
  • *******Look into the Sun City Girls & the label Sublime Frequencies*******
  • B. looks to folk culture copia as a means to revise or reform IP in the interest of expanding the space and opportunities of folk culture so that mutual appropriation can occur outside the discourses & repercussions of private property toward creation in open, unobstructed, inherently multiple, excessive, and abundant forms (76).

Chapter 3: Copying as Transformation

  • B. begins this chapter by recounting how the I Ching provides a detailed account of 64 “plateaus” or homeostatic spaces that occur cyclically out of the constant flux of the cosmos.
  • B. recounts the book thus far:  “we established that copying, rather than being the production of a distorted, inferior version of an original emerges from emptiness and from impermanence, dependent organization, or lack of essence of all things.  This impermanence. . . we described as a network of infinite, connected, essenceless signs with the name of Copia, is always in a state of transformation, no conceptual apparatus of any kind can describe it – it is utterly beyond concepts, although words like ‘suchness’ and ‘sameness’ may point to it provisionally” (79).  In this chapter B aims to answer the question:  why do we (despite recognizing the ecological nature of things) maintain the illusion that things are “self-produced” and separate from other things?
  • Relying on Tarde, B. notes that the act of biological reproduction is an exercise in copying (though the copy is never an absolute replica of the original).  Relying on Deleuze, B. notes that every copy is a repetition; however, difference manages to manifest itself in repetition and that manifestation marks a transformation (91).  Yet, as B. notes, these transformations are problematic because they make man feel (relying on Canetti) that “there was nothing but movement everywhere and that his own being was in a state of continual flux; and this inevitably aroused in him a desire for solidity and permanence only to be satisfied through prohibitions on transformations” (98).  This is a fear of nondifference, nonduality.
  • This fear of nondifference is tied to capitalist power when considered in terms of the dominant cultural determinant of the 21st century: copyright (this goes as far back as Hegel’s philosophy of right is constituted through property – body or land).[1. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks to IP in Article 27, section 2.0]  The fear of transformation also manifests in nationalist doctrines and articulations of the permissibility of border crossing as well as in the regulation and persecution of gender change, abortion, and euthanasia.
  • B. notes that the right to copy and transform extend beyond IP law and points to the liberatory potential of transformation of self itself:  “let us affirm that the right to copy, and to transform ourselves and our environment through copying, is a political issue in ways that go far beyond IP law . . . . [The framing of transformation by law, taboo, discourse, ISA, etc.] is ideological but is presented as natural.  [The framers] set the standards for what is called ‘original’ and what a ‘copy,’ what is ‘real’ and what is ‘fake’ who belongs and who is an imposter, what is fixed and what is allowed to change, what is called ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ (105).

Chapter 4: Copying as Deception

  • B. acknowledges that one of the primary arguments made against copying is that it involves an act of deception – something is presented in the guise of something else (108).
  • How is copia limited through IP?  As B. notes, “The complexity of the many possible economic and social arrangements of textual dissemination is reduced by contemporary IP law to a situation of legal ownership and consumer’s rights – despite the necessarily copious quality of any textual communication or event” (110).  B. then goes on to highlight how the belief that copying is deceptive rests on the idea that it is always possible to name and describe things correctly, to say what is “original” and to judge all things correctly based on their outward appearance (111).  Yet, because of essencelessness, all things are necessarily defined in relation to something else. . . and as such, are deceptions (though a truth is impossible in this system – an absolute truth of course) (111).
  • A paradox:  the work of branding and differentiation in corporate advertising always involves strategies of representation that make copying those goods easier for deceivers.
  • B. notes that copying and deception are related to issues of power (power is the “production of intended effects [Russel]) (122).  The power of a copy is that it intends to produce an action through that deception (though, that “power” can be in the hands of the poor, folk cultures, etc. and enables the act of civil disobedience to unjust global power structures).  *******
  • Play is an important part of the constitution of imitation because, as Aristotle implies in Poetics, imitation is an act of learning, recognition, and creation . . . and as such, has value (127).  The “play” in digital environments you study comes from the socially derived pleasure of being in a communities of copiers, counterfeiters, and pirates.
  • Why do some copy?  According to B., “Folk practices of copying are based on rules – the open secrets of the symbolic order that one does not have to believe in but that one still has to observe. . . . And it is through the rule that the power of copia is unfolded” (130).
  • In this section B. also highlights how IP is a challenge from the Buddhist viewpoint of change and illusion.  Because appearances are illusion (the real world is an illusion of permanence because everything is always in flux and whole) the idea that you could protect a static form is really incomprehensible.  Because we don’t see the world as illusion but instead as the Real – a place where deception (isn’t supposed to) never occurs, the copy is the scapegoat for the “immense and apparently unsolvable problems that mimesis, as a basic constituent of our situation, poses for us” (135).
  • B. differentiates between a student plagiarist and someone who “copies out of love” or out of a desire to share knowledge and the magics of production and form (139).

Chapter 6: The Mass Production of Copies

  • In this chapter B looks at the “modern appropriation of copia” by the global capitalist economy. According to B., mass standardization and production actually make real the “perverse” dream of Platonic idealism because they make the consumer feel like each individual object is a perfect, identical copy of the ideal – the ideal as made real through marketing, advertising, etc.  (178).
  • B. traces out the mimetic in consumer products, nation-states, markets, and many other facets (if not all) of modern life in order to not only draw attention to commodity fetishism but also the liberatory potentials from mass copying in the form of access.
  • What are the powers of the fetishized commodity?  1) exchange value or price through which it is linked to other objects.  2) objects are fetishized because of the “sensuous work of their production”; however, this imperfect sensuousness is obscured in capitalist economies through an abstraction of the object that gives it a Platonic sheen – it’s closer to an ideal form (because of its “newness” and consistency of mass production).
  • B. claims that the production of brands, commodities, saturation advertising, and propaganda in the capitalist marketplace attempt to provide levels of saturation that result in the “monopolization of consciousness for purposes of control” (192).
  • B. argues that the major crisis concerning copying today is the mass proliferation of replication technologies across a large strata of individuals in Western (and increasingly non-Western) locales while, at the same time, the centrality of information production in Western economies is on the increase (198).
  • B. claims that a digital copy – despite being composed of the same strings of 1s and 0s – is not an identical copy for a couple of reasons:  1) two objects composed of the same code cannot be stored in the same place at the same time.  This means that 1s and 0s are really just the smallest differences in energy that allow for the full project of mimesis in digital environments.

Chapter 7:  Copying as Appropriation

  • A lovely quote:  “most of what we call history is arguably the history of appropriation, and the history of one group stealing from another group and claiming those people’s bodies, minds, properties, lands, or cultures as their own” (205). But, B. asks, what can we say “truly belongs to us?”
  • Relying on Taoist master Zhang Boduan, (in “Essay on Achieving Perfection”) B. argues that theft is a universal principle because all beings exist and survive by stealing from each other (208).  Because all things die and relinquish the two-part composition of identity (name and form), all things are made of other things and other identities.  The same is true of language.
  • B. connects nonessenceness to the Virtual on 210:  “Ultimately there is only emptiness, the nameless, wild, chaotic nonduality that lies beyond all concepts and labels where matter is in a continuous state of self-devouring flux and where forms live, mutate, and die from second to second” (210).  This is the space of transformation.
  • On property:  B. notes, using the ethics of the Virtual or a Buddhist rendering of being as nonessenceness, that “in any society what I consider to be mine can be taken away – because ultimately nothing is mine, nothing belongs to me, and finally there is no me” (210).  Law exists as a way to mitigate disputes that surround the issue of appropriation . . . but law itself is an appropriation, a culling of power that sometimes occurs in the notion of sovereignty and sometimes is authoritarian (which in turn is an appropriation through force) (210).
  • According to Locke (KEY), property is appropriated from nature through labor.  We own because we labor and work (211).  Unfortunately, no model of appropriation beyond Locke’s idea exists. . . as such, ideas about “mutual appropriation” in the form of “the commons”, “the public domain” and “fair use” are devalued and rendered a problem to the capitalist paradigm (212).
  • In colonial studies the position of the colonial subject is one of required mimesis:  the subject must adopt the customs of the imperial oppressor; however, the mimesis is always incomplete and their inauthenticity is used to further devalue/diminish their own legitimacy as subjects (215).  This example makes clear that open, unobstructed mimesis is only possible for those in power (like copyright holders) while the folk cultures are forced to obey a “highly ideological framing of mimesis” that subjects them to oppression.
  • B. goes back to Heidegger to reveal a fundamental flaw in the Platonic metaphysics of essence:  The act of appropriation is supposedly an act of theft; however, it is impossible to steal an essence. . . if it can be stolen it is not an essence.  As such, the ways that things appear essential actually occurs through the act of appropriation . . . and appropriation is determinative of how we think about things (218).
  • B. reflects on his own theory when he asks the question of property:  If nothing has an essence then nothing is anything else; as such, property is merely the consequence of power and domination.  In response to this objection he offers refutations:  1) essencelessness doesn’t mean infinite regress into the sea of signifiers; rather, it means that properness of a thing is determined not by itself but by the “dwelling” or “being-with” of an object . . . or, said differently, in relationship to the object.
  • B. relies on Cixous’s notion of “depropriation” as “indifference to possession” as a way to imagine the world anew without imposing the conditions of property.  This position also embraces and ethics of care outside the bounds of ownership (224).  There is much akin between depropriation and the Buddhist idea of renunciation: the giving up of attachment to and fear of the object.  B. claims that depropriation also occurs all the time:  automatic writing, Surrealist detournement, the music of Cage, the act of improvisation in its myriad forms, and the open-source software movement (though also appropriative). . .
  • B. draws attention to the fact (much like de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life) that individuals all have the ability to appropriate. . . not just corporations (230).
  • What of asymmetrical appropriation of the ilk that usually occurs on the internet?  Well, B. sees the internet as a place where folk cultures who collectively constitute the Multitude that Hardt/Negri call forth can use the medium as a place to reappropriate the appropriations of transnational capital (in their appropriation of the wealth of the commons that is protected through IP regimes and legal protocols) (231).  Pirates occupy “temporary autonomous zones” where the “full potential, as copia, infinite abundance” can be manifested (231).
  • A great quote:  “We speak of ‘abundance’ but it would be more accurate to speak of an ‘essencelessness,’ whose figurations include an infinite, abundant multiplicity” (234).

Coda: From the Right to Copy to Practices of Copying

  • Problems with Lessig/Boyle:  they accept the capitalist system as it currently operates and want to modify IP law so that the system itself will function more successfully in exploiting creative labor, entrepreneurship of ideas, etc. (239).  In other words, “if those seeking a ‘free culture’ can posit the freedom of culture only in terms of the existing system then how free can such a culture really be?” (239)
  • B. notes that the way that IP operates in the academy (with respect to research materials, textbooks, monographs, etc.) is incredibly unfair as it hinders progress and the work of the academy as a place to generate ideas/knowledge (241).  As B. notes, the university is dependent on copying:  “there is no university without copying, since the university’s mandate is itself a disseminative mimesis” (242).
  • While B. recognizes the importance of IP debates in relation to mimesis, he’s more concerned with moving toward a broader consideration of the copy as a way to move toward depropriated subjects and objects or abandoning all notions of property.
  • What happens when the idea of property is all made into IP?  What is “fair use” in the context of national borders?  Who has access to the “public domain” in terms of food, health, and education?  Answer:  make more copies!  🙂  (246)
  • B. says some powerful things about the practice of copying in this chapter.  Practice is by definition mimetic and, as such, transportable and belongs to no one.  As such, the work of practice “inserts us in a dynamic collectivity” involved in the production of ethics for a multitude/folk culture.

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