Ownership of Ideas: Part 1: The Romantic Author

on 1 November 2007 at about 1:43

Cross-posted to CEMP

This lecture takes a historical view of laws relating to copyright, and locates it in differing approaches to creativity; it examines the extent to which copyright protects, as its proponents claim, the livelihood of authors and creators, and the extent to which copyright damages, as its detractors claim, the fertility of the public domain. It takes a detour into the modern ages of man, and looks at Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernity and postmodernism. It also examines some poetry as primary evidence, alongside more vernacular forms of cultural production, on the basis that poetry might help us to illuminate the extremes of human creativity, in order to look again at the more demotic (commonplace) things we encounter.

This lecture is split into three parts: PART 1: The Romantic Author; PART 2: The History of Copyright; and PART 3: The Contemporary Author. By the way, this lecture is best consumed while listening to The Kleptones, Dean Gray or Bootie.

PART 1: The Romantic Author

The author


We begin by looking back to the 19th century. In 1816, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his poem Kubla Khan after consuming some opium. Coleridge famously stated that he fell asleep after medicating himself with an 'anodyne', while reading the following sentence from Purchas's Pilgrimage:

"Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall."

Upon waking, he says, he immediately wrote down the poem, but was disturbed by "a person on business from Porlock", and "to his no small surprise and mortification", found on returning to the poem that the vision had departed. Thus Kubla Khan is the fragment that remains.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !
A savage place ! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover !
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced :
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail :
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean :
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war !

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves ;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Creative Genius

Coleridge's poem is often interpreted by scholars of literature and the Romantic era as an analogy of the creative process; a 'deep romantic chasm', which is savage and wild, and which may represent the human psyche or subconscious, at times thrusts up a fountain into the overland wood and dale of our consciousness. The fountain forms a river which is sacred - the precious outpourings of the creator - before it plunges once more into caverns measureless to man, and the magical access to that hot creative process is gone as quickly as it came.

This Romantic (note the capital R) vision of creativity is a notion that remains with us today. The creative act is a mystical, ungovernable ability - the gift of the creative few who are better able than most of the rest of us lesser mortals, to access that resource from which creativity is borne - the human subconscious, formed as it is from the sacred river 'Alph' - a cipher for the beginning, the alpha, the original - the source.

And of course, if we accept that only a few of us are gifted enough to access the wild and savage human psyche, the numinous and the mystical, and 'momently' force it into consciousness and create beautiful 'sacred' things with it, then those lucky few ought really to be protected by copyright law and adequately compensated.

What is Romanticism?

So we've said that Coleridge's poem expresses a Romantic view of creativity, but what do we mean by Romantic? The Romantic period refers to the 19th century and its tempestuous outpourings in literature and the arts. It is the period of poets like Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Coleridge, who placed man in a landscape of spiritual intent. It is the era of the pre-Raphaelites, who painted unapproachable ideals of beauty and innocence. It is the era of a Victorian return to morality and Christian values in the shape of poets like Chistina Rossetti (the pre-Raphealite Dante Gabriel's sister) whose poetry captured the stifled suppression of sensuality, but also the wayward 'new-morality' of William Blake and his naturism and visions of worlds beyond the senses. It is the era of Beethoven and Brahms, and their swelling and tumultuous innovation in bending the rules of composition, and their blasting of polite, courtly music right out of the water. It is also the era of the Gothic in literature - of Emily Bronte's Heathcliffe and Catherine in Wuthering Heights, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It is, in many ways, the age of the genius, the magical, the era of awe and the 'awful' in the original sense of the word, where one is 'in awe'.

W.B. Yeats, often thought of as one of those seminal poets who straddle ages (in his case, Romanticism and modernism), and whose poetry therefore gives great insight into the shifting ground beneath society and its culture's feet, wrote to his friend in 1892, that -

"I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater renaissance - the revolt of the soul against the intellect - now beginning in the world".

Sadly for Yeats, he was always looking idealistically at things fading, and thinking of things very old as very new, so his prognostication was a good 90 years late. Only when he looked ahead at the looming of the 20th century and the death of his ideals did he really hit upon the heart of the matter, in poems such as 'Sailing to Byzantium' and 'The Second Coming' in which the second coming brings not a new Jerusalem, but apocalypse. The two great wars of the 20th century are as close to apocalypse as you might care to get, and his refrain that 'the centre cannot hold' has been taken up by many late modern (and postmodern) thinkers to characterise the babel of contemporary humanity.

However, his point still holds good for Romanticism. Whence, then, this revolt against the intellect? In what ways did Romanticism revolt against reason?

What is Enlightenment?

This is the name of a famous piece written by Michel Foucault, in response to Emmanuel Kant's piece, also by the same name. However, the substance of their pieces is not of concern here - indeed if you read either Foucault's reflexive meanderings or Kant's metaphysical musings, you'll probably end up thinking: "no, but really, what is it?"

When we speak of the Enlightenment we tend to mean a period roughly spanning the 18th century, in which we might argue the birth of 'science' as we know it took place. As clever men (and it was men) peeped out from the receding gowns of the clergy and the Church, they started to attempt to analyse the world from 'first principles' - from the evidence of their senses. Instead of accepting that the world was made by God, they were curious enough to reject 'argument from authority' and to attempt to understand the world using reason.

Indeed the century preceding the Enlightenment (C17th) is often known as the Age of Reason precisely because, following the Renaissance (rebirth or rediscovery), in which western Europe emerged from the Dark ages by rediscovering the (literally) monumental achievements of the ancient Roman and Greek civilisations, scholars began to attempt to piece together the world that was forming in the shape of the rise of the nation state, the emerging body of knowledge made possible by the printing press, and the increasing prominence that 'ration' seemed to have in the destiny of man. All these things began to militate against the authority of the Church, God's institution on earth.

So we might say that the Enlightenment was a fruition of the rise of reason and rationality, of investigating the world as evidence. Institutions such as the British Museum were formed in this period as explorers 'civilised' savage countries, and brought home their antiquities and plunder. The American Constitution was written at the end of what we call the Enlightenment, and the writers of that constitution, the Founding Fathers, were keen to base their dream of a modern, democratic, egalitarian nation on the Enlightenment principles of equality, fairness and reason, which were quite vehemently in opposition to previously traditional, even feudal, ways of seeing the world as framed by the absolute power of God, the absolute power of the Monarch (God's representative on earth) or the absolute power of the Church, which held the keys to eternal damnation, and thereby maintained a tight grip on permissable behaviour.

Romanticism vs Enlightenment

So, since the Romantic era follows the Enlightenment, it might make sense to think of it as a reaction and revolt against the rise of rationality and reason. The Romantic poets were deeply interested in the idea of pantheism - an adaptation of religiosity which saw God as the breathe of life in the world, the player of the 'The Aeolian Harp' of both mankind and his natural world. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is often interpreted as a fore-warning of the arrogance of the rational man who takes it upon himself to play God by harnessing the forces of life itself. Yeats later on became interested in mysticism and automatic writing (where one writes without conscious thought in order to become a medium for the numinous forces at work in the unseen world around us). Keats the poet was even very explicit about it by speaking of the 'unweaving of the rainbow' in his long poem, Lamia, which base fellows like Newton were attempting by splitting light into its components hues:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine-
Unweave a rainbow...

It's worth noting that this common interpretation of Keats's 'unweaving the rainbow' is disputed.

Unweaving the Rainbow

Richard Dawkins in his book of 1998 later took up this phrase as his motif in arguing that science, far from wrecking our aesthetic appreciation and ability to have 'awe', actually inspires yet further awe as the terrible complexity and mind-exploding enormity of the universe and life within it emerge from the laws of physics - all the more awe-inspiring precisely because we need not look to some mischevious God to explain it all, and thereby belittle the infinitely aesthetically pleasing world around us which somehow managed to create itself from a primeval soup of crap...

However, that Dawkins felt impelled as late as 1998 to pick up the cudgels and defend the beauty of science tells us something important about the simplistic story of the 'ages of modern man' that we've seen so far.

The weaved, linear, rainbow of the modern ages of man

It is very easy to say that the Age of Reason and its child, the Enlightenment, are a reaction against the absolute authority of the Church, as though the 17th & 18th centuries were an antithesis to the Dark Ages; it is easy to say that the Romantic era was a reaction against the Enlightenment, as though everyone in the 19th century was fainting and waiting to be possessed by the spiritus mundi; it is easy to say that modernity is a reaction against Romanticism, in which everyone wanted to turn the world into a machine, and that the human self achieved its apotheosis in antithesis to its subjection to the forces of spiritualism and the occult; and that, finally, postmodernity is a reaction against modernism, in that we no longer want to mechanise the world, have given up on the dream of progress, and are happy merely to consume, rather than conquer.

It is, indeed, far too easy to think that each age is a (Newtonian) equal and opposite reaction against the former. Indeed, it is (to digress totally) a classically structuralist idea to think of the modern ages as such antithetical reactions. It makes much more sense (and is a usefully postmodern thing to do) to think of all these movements (Enlightenment, Romanticism, modernism) as movements in the last half of the last millennium which stay with us today.

Postmodernity is an unravelling and reravelling rainbow

Here's an important idea: the definition of 'ages' - such as the Enlightenment, the Romantic era, 'modernity' - are recent and retrospective classifications which people in the 20th century used to describe a history of contemporary society. Postmodernism is the recognition that, far from these movements swinging backwards and forwards like a pendulum over the people of the past, actually, we might think of them as currents in cultural thought that all remain with us today.

Hence it is that we can see that our ideas of creativity are still close to the Romantic notion - and that much of our popular culture is dominated with deeply Gothic trends such as the stream of horror movies in the cinema, the perennial remakes of Frankenstein, the presence of the emo-kid.

And hence, too, we see the influence of the Enlightenment today, the technocratic belief in science from some quarters, and the (Romantic) anti-GM movement in others. Hence, also, the continuing ('modernistic') mechanisation of all sorts of cultural processes such as media-making, war-mongering and urban-planning.

The Age of Reason, the Romanticism of the Gothic, the modernity of technocratisation are all still present and active in postmodernity. Not so much 'anything goes' as 'everything goes'.

Erm, where are we going with this?

And, to finally return to the point, our Romantic ideas of what creativity and authorship are, are still used today by industries who defend copyright law as the justification for their maintenance and furtherance. In a contemporary society in which awe for genius does not pay for a starving artist's food, the stalwart reliability of copyright law will protect the author's freedom to pursue their gift.

The author, that rare and ideally gifted individual who is more creative than the rest of us, is protected by copyright law from merciless exploitation, and it is the role of industries such as the RIAA, the MPAA and the Author's Guild, to ensure that those authors' income is ensured.

Remember: God = maker = creator = author = authority

In part two...

In part two of this lecture, we'll look at the history of copyright laws, and see if they measure up to this Romantic defence.

Lecture archive

  • Media & The Body Readings
  • The Use of Theory
  • Play
  • Production - [Critical Media Concepts and Contexts]
  • Narratives: Endlessnesses and Existence
  • Narratives: Endings, Meaning and Morals
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Familiarity and Strangeness
  • Intro to Media and Participation 2008 - 2009
  • Narratives: Stories and Structures
  • Narratives: Opening and Introductions
  • The Writerly Text: Part 1
  • Media & Participation: Identity
  • Media & Participation: Truth
  • Media & Participation: Citizenship
  • Media & Participation: Culture
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 2: The History of Copyright
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 1: The Romantic Author
  • Bournemouth Soundseeing: collaborative authorship
  • Marx's Critique of Capital: 101
  • Key concepts: Ideologies ...a historical view
  • Narrative and Structuralism and the brothers Grimm
  • Intro to Digital Media at BU
  • Small Print

    Joe Flintham 2000 - 2015

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