Original genius

A Reading Note

In Writing Machines, Hayles explores how we came to think about a work of literature and its form (print or otherwise) as separate concerns, and why that notion is flawed. But she also uncovers one of the ways in which the principle of copyright is inextricably linked with that disembodied work:

…legal theorists such as Blackstone defined a literary work as consisting solely of its “style and sentiment.” “These alone constitute its identity,” Blackstone wrote. “The paper and print are merely accidents which serve as vehicles to convey that style and sentiment to a distance.” Subsequent commentators realized is was not practical to copyright “sentiment,” for some ideas are so general they cannot be attributed to any single author: that men are mortal, for example. Rather, it was the ways in which ideas were expressed that could be secured as literary property and hence copyrighted. This judicial history, played out in a contentious environment where conflicting economic, political, and class interests fought for priority, had important consequences for literature that went beyond purely legal considerations, for it helped to solidify the literary author as a man of original genius (the author’s assumed gender in these discourses was invariably male) who created literary property by mixing his intellectual labor with the materials afforded him by nature—much as Locke had argued men create private property by mixing their labor with the land. Consistently in these discourses, material and economic considerations, although they had force in the real world, were elided or erased in favor of an emphasis on literary property as an intellectual construction that owed nothing to the medium in which it was embodied….With significant exceptions, print literature was widely regarded as not having a body, only a speaking mind.

Hayles, Writing Machines, page 31

(Emphasis mine.) Setting the material considerations to the side for the moment, what strikes me about this is the way in which that concept of “original genius” continues to infect our approach towards copyright as well as our notions of authorship in general. We should know by now that writing is a collaborative, messy act; it takes a village to raise a book. Yet the vision of the solitary writer laboring away for months or years only to emerge with a perfect work stubbornly persists. Why?

Related books

Writing Machines

N. Katherine Hayles

This short book, a collaboration between literary critic Katherine Hayles and designer Anne Burdick, has a lot not to like. But even ten years after publication, the book’s exploration of the material nature of writing is interesting and as yet incomplete.