January 26, 2011
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: CULTURAL APHASIA
Hyde, Lewis, Common As Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) ("By the 1640s, when Charles I and the British Parliament began the confrontation that would lead to civil war, it had become a commonplace of English thought that the liberty of citizens should be defined as freedom from any and all superior power. Significant then was Charles I's claim to possess what was called a 'Negative Voice' when it came to laws enacted by Parliament. Essentially a veto power, Negative Voice came to be understood by the Crown's opponents in classical terms: if the king had such prerogatives, all citizens were slaves." "I have paused to recall this historical opposition between liberty and the monarch's Negative Voice because I believe it to be one of the things that lay behind the founders' wariness in regard to giving anyone monopoly power over the common stock of knowledge, ideas, and expression." Id. at 234. "To juxtapose monarchy and monopoly seems exactly right in this context, for it brings a foundational idea about liberty to bear in the present: in the sense that the framers inherited from Roman law, where an unlimited monarch has the last word in legislative matters, or where content owners have the last word in speech, no citizen is truly free. If democratic practices (not to mention creativity) depends on plural speech and plural listening, then we should rightly be reluctant to give modern from of Negative Voice a presence in the public sphere." "But of course have." Id. at 235. "Copyright's monopoly privileges are meant to encourage creative work, and this they surely do. That said, once a state-sanctioned right to exclude has been granted, it can encourage many other things as well, including attempts to control public discussion and debate." Id. at 235. "I have been enumerating these examples of blocked or balky permission not just to illustrate the idea that we've allowed a new form of Negative Voice to enter the public sphere, but also to connect that fact to the earlier idea that plural listening is one of the things that enables collective being. Aristotle defined a human being both as a 'political animal' and an animal 'capable of speech.' These are linked definitions, of course, so long as politics is conducted through persuasion, and the link implies a reversal: those whose speech is blocked cannot be political and so cannot be fully human. . . . As in the line of thought I have been tracing from the days of Charles I through the American Revolution, prohibitions on speech turn agents into subjects, free citizens into servants or worse. The growing reach of private monopoly privilege divides and encloses formerly open fields, and leaves each woman and man less likely to mature into the kind of plural self best suited for creativity, spiritual life, and politics." "The result I think of as a kind of cultural aphasia." . . The cultural aphasiac would be someone like the Joyce scholar not permitted to communicate 40 percent of the evidence for her book. Such a scholar has no trouble thinking about her case, she just can't produce the words that back it up. . . ." "In each case, the law makes it easy to block speech and difficult to recover it. . . ." Id. at 240-241.READ, AND THINK ABOUT, THIS BOOK! Its argument is nuanced, and worth careful consideration. Also see Robert Darnton, "A Republic of Letters," NYT Book Review, Sunday, 8/22/2010.).