In Praise of Copying

by Marcus Boon

11 October 2010


Authentically Original Imitations

The everyday saga of intellectual property and its protection is here elaborated to an unusual degree. Marc Jacobs may claim that the Brooklyn Museum’s tableau was just a little amusement, but the fact that all the players involved choose to pay close attention to such an apparently trivial matter as copying should indicate the existence of a crisis. Such a crisis might involve: the globalization of commerce and the transport of texts, images, symbols, objects, and products across national boundaries and cultural spaces in a way that calls into question the ownership of such things; the problem of when some “thing” can be called “art” and the ever-expanding role of the museum in legitimating objects as being art or otherwise, even as museums themselves are forced to function as part of a market economy; consequently, the erosion of the gap between financial and aesthetic value and the increasingly open question as to the source of the prestige of particular fabricated objects; the inability of the law to resolve, both intellectually and practically, questions about the identities of objects, about what can be claimed as private property or not, and what the rights of various parties as to the use of things are; last but not least, the apparent indifference of the general public to whether the things that they buy are “real” or “fake,” “original” or a “copy,” as evidenced by the expanding market for both originals and copies of many products.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates presents the argument that everything in this world is an imitation, because it is an echo or reproduction of an idea that exists beyond the realm of sensible forms.

So: what exactly constitutes a “copy” in this situation—or rather, what does not? Writing admiringly of the LV copies available in New York City, for example, fashion journalist Lynn Yaeger struggled to put her finger on the difference between an original LV bag and a well-made copy. The site, one of a number of Web-based companies that in 2009 offered high-end copies of Vuitton, along with Dior, Marc Jacobs, and others, proclaimed:

No tongue in cheek, we can honestly say that our Louis Vuitton replica bags are absolutely indistinguishable from the originals. You can take your Louis Vuitton replica handbag to a Louis Vuitton flagship store and compare, feel the leather, test the handles, check out the lining—not even a Louis Vuitton master craftsman will be able to tell which is the original and which the Louis Vuitton replica handbag from Louis Vuitton replica bags with the same Alcantara lining, quality cowhide leather given a finish that oxidizes to a dark honey just the way the original Louis Vuitton handbags colour as they age, authentically original imitations of the real originals!

Aside from being a fabulous rhetorical flourish, what is an “authentically original imitation”? Or more specifically: What is a copy? In everyday parlance, the word “copy” designates an imitation of an original—for example, a copy of a Louis Vuitton bag. But a brief survey of the kinds of objects called “copies” today raises basic questions about this definition. What does it mean to say that something is a copy of something else? How is the claim that object A is a copy of object B established? What do we mean when we say that A is “like” B, that it imitates it? At first, these questions strike one as banal and the answers obvious or self-evident. But when original and copy begin to overlap to the extent that they do today (and the struggle to maintain the distinction between these two things, “original” and “copy,” is precisely what constitutes the crisis, to my mind); when original and copy are produced together in the same factory, at different moments; when a copy is actually self-consciously preferred to the original, we must ask again: What do we mean when we say “copy”?

The Platonic World of Intellectual Property
What is the origin of the vocabulary—legal, commercial, aesthetic, or otherwise—that is used to describe the complex global situation of the Louis Vuitton bag? To answer the question adequately might require one to tell a history of the world, which is perhaps why no one has attempted it. Nevertheless, it is a situation in which a specific philosophical history is being deployed, knowingly or not, ingenuously or not, by all those involved. In this history, Plato’s writings on mimesis—a word usually translated as “imitation” but also “copy,” “representation,” “reproduction,” “similarity,” or “resemblance”—play a key role. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates presents the argument that everything in this world is an imitation, because it is an echo or reproduction of an idea that exists beyond the realm of sensible forms. A Louis Vuitton bag is the imitation of an idea, in leather and other materials, while a photograph of such a bag is an imitation of an imitation. In what way is the bag an imitation of an idea, though? In an analysis of the Platonic idea, Martin Heidegger gives an answer to this perplexing question: “Mimesis means copying, that is, presenting and producing something in a manner which is typical of something else. Copying is done in the realm of production, taking it in a very broad sense. Thus the first thing that occurs is that a manifold of produced items somehow comes into view, not as the dizzying confusion of an arbitrary multiplicity, but as the many-sided individual item which we name with one name.”

So copying is a matter of “presenting and producing something in a manner which is typical of something else.” All copies are made—they are produced—and the making involves an attempt to turn something into something else, so that that which is produced is now “like” something else. But in what way is it “like” something else? Why is the bag “like” the idea of a bag? Or for that matter, why is the fake Louis Vuitton bag sold on like the original object sold in Vuitton’s Paris flagship store? Heidegger responds: “Making and manufacturing . . . mean to bring the outward appearance to show itself in something else… to ‘pro-duce’ the outward appearance, not in the sense of manufacturing it but of letting it radiantly appear”.

Outward appearance is crucial here, for “in the outward appearance, whatever it is that something which encounters us ‘is,’ shows itself” (173). It is outward appearance that makes something “like” something else; but more profoundly, it is in outward appearance that the idea, the essence of something, shows itself. The quote from a 1922 Louis Vuitton ad that figures at the head of this chapter articulates this Platonic belief very clearly: the bag not only “looks like” something but “IS”; it not only “IS” but “appears.” The famous “LV” logo also makes sure we know that something not only “appears” to be an actual Louis Vuitton bag, but “IS.”

The astute reader or shopper will immediately realize that there is a problem: the fact that something appears to be a Louis Vuitton bag does not mean that it is. For, as we know, an “LV” logo, indeed the entire design of a Louis Vuitton bag, can be copied. Plato, too, recognized this problem, and Socrates poses the following riddle to his respondents in order to think it through: There exists a producer who can produce not only chairs or tables, but the sun, mountains, everything in this world. Who is this producer? Answer: Someone holding a mirror. In the mirror, everything in the world is produced and appears. Again, we ask, in what sense does a mirror “produce”? Heidegger explains that if we understand “produce” to mean manufacture, then obviously a mirror cannot be used to manufacture the sun. But if we understand “produce” to mean “manifest the outward appearance of,” then a mirror does “produce” the sun, even if it clearly does not manufacture a sun.

There are, then, different ways in which an outward appearance can be produced—and different producers, too: the god produces the idea, the craftsman is able to make the idea radiantly appear in an object, and the painter makes it appear in a painting.

What then differentiates these three ways of producing outward appearance? The latter two are diminutions or distortions of the first. Hence Plato’s mistrust of mimesis, and of the artist—the mirrored image, and even the craftsman’s object, confuse the ignorant as to what is essential. At the same time, it is the Platonic belief that the outward appearance of something indicates its essence which continues to generate much of our confusion about what a copy is. When we say “an original,” we usually mean something in which the idea and the outward appearance correspond to each other. There is no distortion in the relation of appearance to essence, to “what a thing is.” Copies, then, for Plato and for us, most of the time are distortions of this relationship. The mirror produces the sun, yet it is not the sun. produces a Louis Vuitton bag, yet the article is not a real Louis Vuitton bag.

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