GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Orlando Is the Virginia Woolf Novel We Need Right Now By Joanna Scutts

 

‘For a brief interlude after Orlando’s male-to-female transformation (or transition), Woolf raises the possibility of not being bound by sex at all, and tries speaking of Orlando with “they” pronouns, as a person containing both male and female selves: “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same.” After these two sentences, however, the narrator-biographer bows to convention and begins to call Orlando “she.” But the glimpse of a nonbinary pronoun is tantalizing. It would take decades for the singular, gender-evasive “they” to take hold in the lexicon (Merriam-Webster dates the first use to the 1950s) and for the culture to catch up to Orlando’s casual claim that “in every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place.”

If published today, Orlando might have been misshelved not as biography but as fantasy or science fiction — genres in which women writers in recent years have increasingly found the space to challenge the straight-white-male strictures of both realist fiction and reality itself. Orlando’s blend of social critique and bold fantasy echoes in the postwar fiction of Ursula Le Guin and Angela Carter, and more recently in the fairy-tale retellings of Helen Oyeyemi and Daniel Mallory Ortberg — as well as in novels like Melissa Broder’s The Piscesin which a graduate student writing on Sappho falls in love with a merman.

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GABBLER RECOMMENDS: ‘What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?’ By Arundhati Roy

“Has any writer ever written a masterpiece in an alien language? In a language other than his mother tongue?” I hadn’t claimed to have written a masterpiece (nor to be a “he”), but nevertheless I understood his anger toward a me, a writer who lived in India, wrote in English, and who had attracted an absurd amount of attention. My answer to his question made him even angrier.

“Nabokov,” I said. And he stormed out of the hall.

The correct answer to that question today would of course be “algorithms.” Artificial Intelligence, we are told, can write masterpieces in any language and translate them into masterpieces in other languages. As the era that we know, and think we vaguely understand, comes to a close, perhaps we, even the most privileged among us, are just a group of redundant humans gathered here with an arcane interest in language generated by fellow redundants.

Only a few weeks after the mother tongue/masterpiece incident, I was on a live radio show in London. The other guest was an English historian who, in reply to a question from the interviewer, composed a paean to British imperialism. “Even you,” he said, turning to me imperiously, “the very fact that you write in English is a tribute to the British Empire.” Not being used to radio shows at the time, I stayed quiet for a while, as a well-behaved, recently civilized savage should. But then I sort of lost it, and said some extremely hurtful things. The historian was upset, and after the show told me that he had meant what he said as a compliment, because he loved my book. I asked him if he also felt that jazz, the blues, and all African-American writing and poetry were actually a tribute to slavery. And if all of Latin American literature was a tribute to Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

Notwithstanding my anger, on both occasions my responses were defensive reactions, not adequate answers. Because those incidents touched on a range of incendiary questions—colonialism, nationalism, authenticity, elitism, nativism, caste, and cultural identity—all jarring pressure points on the nervous system of any writer worth her salt. However, to reify language in the way both men had renders language speechless. When that happens, as it usually does in debates like these, what has actually been written ceases to matter. That was what I found so hard to countenance. And yet I know—I knew—that language is that most private and yet most public of things. The challenges thrown at me were fair and square. And obviously, since I’m still talking about them, I’m still thinking about them.

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GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Haraway’s ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’

So, I think a big new name, actually more than one name, is warranted. Thus, Anthropocene, Plantationocene, and Capitalocene (Andreas Malm’s and Jason Moore’s term before it was mine). I also insist that we need a name for the dynamic ongoing sym-chthonic forces and powers of which people are a part, within which ongoingness is at stake. Maybe, but only maybe, and only with intense commitment and collaborative work and play with other terrans, flourishing for rich multispecies assemblages that include people will be possible. I am calling all this the Chthulucene—past, present, and to come. These real and possible timespaces are not named after SF writer H.P. Lovecraft’s misogynist racial-nightmare monster Cthulhu (note spelling difference), but rather after the diverse earth-wide tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa (burst from water-full Papa), Terra, Haniyasu-hime, Spider Woman, Pachamama, Oya, Gorgo, Raven, A’akuluujjusi, and many many more. “My” Chthulucene, even burdened with its problematic Greek-ish tendrils, entangles myriad temporalities and spatialities and myriad intra-active entities-in-assemblages—including the more-than-human, other-than-human, inhuman, and human-as-humus. Even rendered in an American English-language text like this one, Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa, Medusa, Spider Woman, and all their kin are some of the many thousand names proper to a vein of SF that Lovecraft could not have imagined or embraced—namely, the webs of speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction, and scientific fact. It matters which stories tell stories, which concepts think concepts. Mathematically, visually, and narratively, it matters which figures figure figures, which systems systematize systems.

I am a compost-ist, not a posthuman-ist: we are all compost, not posthuman. The boundary that is the Anthropocene/Capitalocene means many things, including that immense irreversible destruction is really in train, not only for the 11 billion or so people who will be on earth near the end of the 21st century, but for myriads of other critters too. (The incomprehensible but sober number of around 11 billion will only hold if current worldwide birth rates of human babies remain low; if they rise again, all bets are off.) The edge of extinction is not just a metaphor; system collapse is not a thriller. Ask any refugee of any species.

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Emily Wilson’s translation of Aphrodite’s affair & Hephaestus’s snare – The Odyssey, Book 4, lines 265-367:

‘The poet strummed and sang a charming song

about the love of fair-crowned Aphrodite

for Ares, who gave lavish gifts to herHephaestus catching Aphrodite and Ares in their affair; circo del herrero imagery for the poem

and shamed the bed of Lord Hephaestus, where

they secretly had sex. The Sun God saw them,

and told Hephaestus–bitter news for him.

He marched into his forge to get revenge,

and set the might anvil on its block,

and hammered chains so strong that they could never

be broken or undone. He was so angry

at Ares. When his trap was made, he went

inside the room of his beloved bed,

and twined the mass of cables all around

the bedposts, and then hung them from the ceiling,

like slender spiderwebs, so finely made

that nobody could see them, even gods:

the craftsmanship was so ingenious.

When he had set the trap across the bed,

he traveled to the cultured town of Lemnos,

which was his favorite place in all the world.

Ares the golden rider had kept watch.

He saw Hephaestus, famous wonder-worker,

leaving his house, and went inside himself;

he wanted to make love with Aphrodite.

She had returned from visiting her father,

the mighty son of Cronus; there she sat.

Then Ares took her hand and said to her,

 

“My darling, let us go to bed. Hephaestus

is out of town; he must have gone to Lemnos

to see the Sintians whose speech is strange.”

 

She was exited to lie down with him;

they went to bed together. But the chaisn

ingenious Hephaestus had created

wrapped tight around them, so they could not move

or get up. THen they knew that they were trapped.

The limping god drew near–before he reached

the land of Lemnos, he had turned back home.

Troubled at heart, he came towards his house.

Standing there in the doorway, he was seized

by savage rage. He gave a mighty shout,

calling to all the gods,

 

“O Father Zeus,

and all you blessed gods who live forever,

look! You may laugh, but it is hard to bear.

See how my Aphrodite, child of Zeus,

is disrespecting me for being lame.

She loves destructive Ares, who is strong

and handsome. I am weak. I blame my parents.

If only I had not been born! But come,

see where those two are sleeping in my bed,

as lovers. I am horrified to see it.

But I predict they will not want to lie

longer like that, however great their love.

Soon they will want to wake up, but my rap

and chains will hold them fast, until her father

pays back the price I gave him for his daughter.

Her eyes stare at me like a dog. She is

so beautiful, but lacking self-control.”

 

The gods assembled at his house: Poseidon,

Earth-Shaker, helpful Hermes, and Apollo.

The goddesses stayed home, from modesty.

The blessed gods who give good things were standing

inside the doorway, and they burst out laughing,

at what a clever trap Hephaestus set.

And as they looked, they said to one another,

“Crime does not pay! The slow can beat the quick,

as no Hephaestus, who is lame and slow,

has used his skill to catch the fastest sprinter

of all those on Olympus. Ares owes

the price for his adultery.” They gossiped.

 

Apollo, son of Zeus, then said to Hermes,

“Hermes my brother, would you like to sleep

with golden Aphrodite, in her bed,

even weighed down by might chains?”

 

And Hermes

the sharp-eyed messenger replied, “Ah, brother,

Apollo lord of archery: if only!

I would be bound three times as tight or more

and let you gods and all your wives look on,

if only I could sleep with Aphrodite.”

 

Then laughter rose among the deathless gods.

Only Poseidon did not laugh. He begged

and pleaded with Hephaestus to release

Ares. He told the wonder-working god,

 

“No let him go! I promise he will pay

the penalty in full among the gods,

just as you ask.”

 

The famous liming god

replied, “Poseidon, do not ask me this.

It is disgusting, bailing scoundrels out.

How could I bind you, while the gods look on,

if Ares should escape his bond and debts?”

 

Poseidon, Lord of Earthquakes, answered him,

“Hephaestus, if he tried to dodge this debt,

I promise I will pay.”

 

The limping god

said, “Then, in courtesy to you, I must

do as you ask.” So using all his strength,

Hephaestus loosed the chains. The pair of lovers

were free from their constraints, and both jumped up.

Ares went off to Thrace, while Aphrodite

smiled as she went to Cyprus, tot he island

of Paphos, where she had a fragrant altar

and sanctuary. The Graces washed her there,

and rubbed her with the magic oil that glows

upon immortals, and they dressed her up

in gorgeous clothes. She looked astonishing.’

GABBLER RECOMMENDS: A Genealogy of Authors’ Property Rights by Anna Nimus

…By the 1830s Wordsworth had effectively linked the notion of genius — defined as the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe — to legal stakes in the copyright wars. Arguing that artistic genius was often not recognized by contemporaries but only after an author’s death, he became an active lobbyist for extending copyright to 60 years after an author’s death. Wordsworth’s duality in invoking the author as a solitary genius as well as an interested economic agent was symptomatic of the complicity between Romantic aesthetics and the logic of commodification. The Romantic worldview tried to elevate art to a pure space above commodity production, but its definition of the creative work as property reintegrated art into the very sphere it sought to negate.

But if physical property can be stolen, can intelligence or ideas be stolen? If your land is stolen, you cannot use it anymore, except on the conditions set by its new private “owner.” If ownership of an idea is analogous to the ownership of material property, it should be subject to the same conditions of economic exchange, forfeiture, and seizure — and if seized it would then cease to be the property of its owner. But if your idea is used by others, you have not lost your ability to use it – so what is really stolen? The traditional notion of property, as something that can be possessed to the exclusion of others, is irreconcilable with intangibles like ideas. Unlike a material object, which can exist in only one place at a given time, ideas are non-rivalrous and non-exclusive. A poem is no less an authors’ poem despite its existence in a thousand memories.

 

Intellectual property is a meaningless concept — ideas don’t behave like land and cannot be possessed or alienated. All the intellectual property debates fought in courthouses and among pamphleteers during the 18th century intuitively grasped this contradiction. What became obvious in these debates was that the rights to own ideas would have to be qualitatively different from the rights to own material property, and that the ease of reproducing ideas posed serious problems for enforcing such rights. In parallel to the philosophical debates about the nature of intellectual property, a monumental discourse criminalizing piracy and plagiarism began to emerge. The most famous rant against piracy was Samuel Richardson’s 1753 pamphlets denouncing unauthorized Irish reprints of his novel Sir Charles Grandison. Contrasting the enlightened English book industry with the savagery and wickedness of Irish piracy, Richardson criminalizes the reprints as theft. In actuality his claims had no legal basis since Ireland was not subject to England’s intellectual property regime. And what he denounced as piracy, Irish publishers saw as a just retaliation against the Stationers Company’s monopoly. A year before Richardson’s pamphlets, there were street riots in Dublin against British taxation policies, which were part of a larger political struggle of Irish independence from Britain. By arguing that this Cause is the Cause of Literature in general, Richardson framed the battle over literary property in purely aesthetic terms, isolating it from its political and economic context. But his use of the piracy metaphor recalled Britain’s colonial history and brutal repression of sea pirates. 18th century maritime piracy has itself been interpreted as a form of guerilla warfare against British imperialism, which also created alternative models of work, property and social relations based on a spirit of democracy, sharing, and mutual insurance.

Artistic creation is not born ex nihilo from the brains of individuals as a private language; it has always been a social practice. Ideas are not original, they are built upon layers of knowledge accumulated throughout history. Out of these common layers, artists create works that have their unmistakable specificities and innovations. All creative works reassemble ideas, words and images from history and their contemporary context. Before the 18th century, poets quoted their ancestors and sources of inspiration without formal acknowledgement, and playwrights freely borrowed plots and dialogue from previous sources without attribution. Homer based the Iliad and the Odyssey on oral traditions that dated back centuries. Virgil’s Aeneid is lifted heavily from Homer. Shakespeare borrowed many of his narrative plots and dialogue from Holinshed. This is not to say that the idea of plagiarism didn’t exist before the 18th century, but its definition shifted radically. The term plagiarist (literally, kidnapper) was first used by Martial in the 1st century to describe someone who kidnapped his poems by copying them whole and circulating them under the copier’s name. Plagiarism was a false assumption of someone else’s work. But the fact that a new work had similar passages or identical expressions to an earlier one was not considered plagiarism as long as the new work had its own aesthetic merits. After the invention of the creative genius, practices of collaboration, appropriation and transmission were actively forgotten. When Coleridge, Stendhall, Wilde and T.S. Eliot were accused of plagiarism for including expressions from their predecessors in their works, this reflected a redefinition of plagiarism in accordance with the modern sense of possessive authorship and exclusive property. Their so-called “theft” is precisely what all previous writers had regarded as natural.

 

Ideas are viral, they couple with other ideas, change shape, and migrate into unfamiliar territories. The intellectual property regime restricts the promiscuity of ideas and traps them in artificial enclosures, extracting exclusive benefits from their ownership and control. Intellectual property is fraud — a legal privilege to falsely represent oneself as the sole “owner” of an idea, expression or technique and to charge a tax to all who want to perceive, express or apply this “property” in their own production. It is not plagiarism that dispossesses an “owner” of the use of an idea; it is intellectual property, backed by the invasive violence of the state, that dispossesses everyone else from using their common culture. The basis for this dispossession is the legal fiction of the author as a sovereign individual who creates original works out of the wellspring of his imagination and thus has a natural and exclusive right to ownership. Foucault unmasked authorship as a functional principle that impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of knowledge. The author-function represents a form of despotism over the proliferation of ideas. The effects of this despotism, and of the system of intellectual property that it shelters and preserves, is that it robs us of our cultural memory, censors our words, and chains our imagination to the law.

And yet artists continue to be flattered by their association with this myth of the creative genius, turning a blind eye to how it is used to justify their exploitation and expand the privilege of the property owning elite. Copyright pits author against author in a war of competition for originality – its effects are not only economic, it also naturalizes a certain process of knowledge production, delegitimates the notion of a common culture, and cripples social relations. Artists are not encouraged to share their thoughts, expressions and works or to contribute to a common pool of creativity. Instead, they jealously guard their “property” from others, who they view as potential competitors, spies and thieves lying in wait to snatch and defile their original ideas. This is a vision of the art world created in capitalism’s own image, whose ultimate aim is to make it possible for corporations to appropriate the alienated products of its intellectual workers.

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