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First things first

It is impossible to write an effective first post on a blog.

Reading notes

Tragedy versus comedy

Tragedy is about wresting victory from failure, whereas comedy concerns the victory of failure itself, the way in which a wry sharing and acceptance of our weaknesses makes us much less killable.

Eagleton, After Theory, page 186

Similarly:

Comedy illustrates that survival depends upon our ability to change ourselves rather than our environment, and upon our ability to accept limitations rather than to curse fate for limiting us.

Meeker, The Comedy of Survival, page 21

A privilege

Copyrights and patents were originally conceived of as monopolies; that is, they provided an exclusive control over a trade, and they did so at the mercy of the state:

The 1624 Statute of Monopolies also made one overt exception to its general prohibition: it allowed patents “of fourteen years or under” to be granted “to the first and true inventor” of “any manner of new manufacture.” Such was the first British patent law and its context make two things clear: patents, like copyrights, were understood to be a species of monopoly, and in allowing them Parliament was granting a privilege, not recognizing a right.

Hyde, Common as Air, page 86

Nearly five hundred years later, it is common to refer to one’s copyright as a natural right; and that infringing upon it is akin to theft, as if the taking of your words is the same as the taking of your bread. But perhaps we would do well to recall that copyright is a special right, not an inalienable one. And with it comes a set of obligations:

Innovations like [the general public license] have come to be called “copyleft,” an unfortunate term because it falsely implies that measures of this sort have their place on the political spectrum. The “right” in copyright refers to a privilege secured by law and its correlative is “duty,” not “left.” The GPL imposes a copy-duty on its users; they have duties to the commons, the duties of encumbered and comic selves.

Hyde, Common as Air, page 220

The use of the word “comic” here is in opposition to “tragic”; that is, a comic self is one who adapts to her surroundings, and succeeds (or fails) collectively with her fellow actors. In contrast, the tragic self proceeds along the thin rail of individualism, and pays no heed to those in his way. It is instructive to recall that while a comedy typically concludes with a wedding, a tragedy always ends in death.

The in-group

Hyde’s analysis of trickster tales leads him to an image of tricksters as characters who cross over cultural boundaries—often those which exist to impose an inequality. Their methods may be perverse or ethically questionable, but without those tricks, they’d never break through:

[Communities of gift exchange] are very fine if you are part of the in-group. But what if you’re an outsider, or what if you’re inside but the customary commerce always leaves you beneath your “betters”? All the wonderful gift exchange in tribe A is little help if you’ve had a crop failure and belong to tribe B. The small business club down the street may have a fine program for start-up capital, but what if it’s for white folks only? What if all the male scientists swap data and you happen to be a woman? What if students at your high school always get scholarships to trade schools, never to elite universities? In cases such as these, you may have to resort to some form of subterfuge to get ahead; if others won’t give, you may have to steal.

Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, page 204

More importantly, the trickster’s boundary crossing often leaves a path for others to follow. Hyde also compellingly (and almost unbelievably) compares Frederick Douglass to the trickster myths, identifying Douglass’ theft of his own body as a boundary crossing. Sadly, Douglass continued to feel like an outsider even after gaining his freedom, never able to fully join the white community that helped him escape. I’m reminded of Meeker’s writing in The Comedy of Survival: unlike tragic characters (whose heads are often carried off stage absent their bodies), comic characters survive until the end of the play. Alas, survival does not guarantee happiness.