So Fake It's Beyond Real

'In Praise of Copying'

by James Williams

12 January 2011

A serious and sustained reflection on what constitutes a “copy” and what is entailed in the act of copying this book asks us to question our basic assumptions about reality.
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In Praise of Copying

Marcus Boon

(Harvard University Press)
US: Oct 2010

Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying begins with a seemingly casual anecdote that quickly immerses the reader in some pretty deep intellectual waters. Boon recalls visiting Space Mountain at the suggestion of his instructor in Tibetan Buddhism who insists that the ride will help Boon cultivate the ability to meditate calmly despite unnerving circumstances.

Boon’s initial bemusement at the advice suggests apprehension at the “fakeness” of Disney World and skepticism toward its appropriateness as a site of spiritual discipline. However, he goes on to question this reflexive prejudice; is the amusement park—emblematic of “hegemonic oppressive late capitalism”—so very different from, say, a Tibetan monastery in so far as both are “designed spaces” that exist apart from their environments and which for that reason can be endlessly replicated?

The anecdote leads Boon to a cogent and compelling articulation of his thesis—which, put simply, is that a serious and sustained reflection on what constitutes a “copy” and what is entailed in the act of copying should lead us to question our basic assumptions about reality. He writes toward the end of his introduction:

My goal in this book is to account for our fear of and fascination with copying. I argue that copying is a fundamental part of being human, that we can and should celebrate this aspect of ourselves, in full awareness of our situation. Copying is not just something human—it is a part of how the universe functions and manifests.

In some ways the disarming modesty and accessibility of Boon’s prose—something of a rarity in contemporary scholarship in the humanities that issues from academic presses—disguises its profound ambition. In Praise of Copying ranges widely in its interests and seriously and knowledgeably invokes the Western metaphysical tradition, contemporary post-structuralist theory, and the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism to suggest that commonplace distinctions between “genuine” and “fake” or “original” and “copy” compromise rather than enable a comprehensive and responsible understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

All of this could lead to an abstruse and tedious text indeed, but as the opening anecdote suggests, Boon has a gift for turning the material of the mundane world into the matter of sophisticated intellectual investigation. The first chapter, for example, “What Is a Copy?” uses the example of replicas of Louis Vuitton handbags—perhaps the most widely disseminated “fakes” in the world—as the foundation for a challenging meditation on Platonic mimesis and the ways in which seemingly esoteric philosophical theory informs what Boon in a subsequent chapter describes as the “current legal, economic, and social regime.”

Contra Platonic idealism, Boon rehearses claims made in the work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Martin Heidegger, and various Buddhist thinkers to argue that there is no such thing as a transcendent essence and therefore nothing can be said to have a greater claim to ontological authenticity than anything else.   

As the foregoing list might suggest, the sources on which Boon draws are both numerous and diverse; while Boon clearly knows this material well—and for that reason should not be accused of dilettantism—readers will have to decide for themselves whether Boon’s crowded citation makes for dazzling eclecticism or a “Who’s Who?” list of thinkers currently fashionable in certain academic circles (Benjamin? Check. Girard? Check. Irigiray? Check.)

Likewise, the objects and practices that constitute the foundation for Boon’s scrutiny are nearly endless—in chapter five, entitled “Montage”, Boon refers to Joseph Cornell’s A Parrot for Juan Gris, William Gibson’s novel Count Zero, James Frazer’s theories of magic,  “Nek Chand’s rock garden in Chandigarh”, the I Ching, Grandmaster Flash’s single “The Adventures of Flash on the Wheels of Steel” and, well, the list could go and on.

Sometimes Boon explains the significance of a given example to good effect; at other times the sheer volume of things he finds interesting is overwhelming. In all fairness, though, the work makes no claim to being systematic and its discursiveness is, for this reviewer at least, more often compelling than frustrating.

One consequence, though, of Boon’s sometimes scattershot approach is that consideration of the potential ethical and practical consequences of his argument is occasionally thin. For example, in a complex reflection on ‘depropriation’, Boon celebrates an “indifference to possession” including the individual’s rejection of ownership of his or her own body, and indeed the self, as a discrete and physically and psychologically circumscribed entity. 

This is problematic for reasons that Boon at least partially acknowledges. He writes, “Depropriation sounds scary, and it is easy to distort or vulgarize the concept in order to discredit it. The word has been used to describe certain kinds of violence—for example, the committing of murders and disappearances in places like Columbia…” The subsequent distinction between a freely elected relinquishing of the self and a political program of erasure is intriguing but needs greater consideration.  After all, rejection of the notion of the individual as a metaphysical or spiritual entity can, at least potentially, lead to quietism in the face of abuses of human rights.

Still, objections to the arguments made in In Praise of Copying should serve as testaments to its significance; it is, in other words, a book that deserves real attention and consideration, both in academia and the larger world.

In Praise of Copying


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