–“That’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.” “It’s the oldest rule in the book,” said the King. “Then it ought to be Number One,” said Alice.
Dispatches has always been rather fond of that passage in Emerson’s great essay, “Self-Reliance,” about the boys in the parlour who are sure of dinner:
The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict.
Mark Twain later turned these nonchalant boys into the mythic figure of Huck Finn. Huck, caught between the Scylla of a moral code (Thou shalt not steal) and the Charybdis of human relation, his friendship with Jim, was not exactly nonchalant, since eternal damnation or the life of his friend hung on his choice. But through his struggle (thinking rather than praying as he puts it) he did become indifferent to the claims of the code that declared that he was morally obligated to turn his friend over to the authorities because he was escaped “property” who belonged to someone else. Huck, because of his indifference, was able to see through the code and the set of rules that went with it. He understood that although the rules claimed universal authority, that was all smoke and mirrors; they were just an expression of a particular interest, and it wasn’t his.
Dispatches has lately found itself under scrutiny for breaking some rules, and the back channel judgments have been harsh. The issue is publication of The Nathaniel Mackey/Barrett Watten Exchange. We received a copy of it from a third party and published it without asking permission from one of the participants. That, as they used to say, is the rub. No permission.
Well, actually, the rub started out as something else, a question of privacy. It was a personal and private exchange, the critics said. How dare you violate their right to privacy? Dispatches addressed this issue in “Dispatch #33 – When the Personal Becomes Political”, and we are not going to go over that old ground again other than to say it must be a pretty hallucinogenic world in which texts that have been posted on Facebook and later circulated via email among 14+ people are considered personal and private. One of the correspondents – the aggrieved one – even argued that it’s enough to just think of your Facebook page as private for it to be so.
Even our critics weren’t prepared to go that far into magical thinking, so the issue started to shift. Or at least the emphasis in social media posts changed. The shift was subtle but effective. Privacy evaporated like the morning dew in July and suddenly we were talking about ownership. The new criticism was that Dispatches didn’t ask for or receive permission to print other people’s writing which, no matter how public it is, is transformed into something called intellectual property which, like all property in a capitalist regime, is protected by property rights, the same ones referred to by John Locke when he invented property based individualism.
Where on earth did you get the idea that because writing appears in public you have the right to reproduce it? we were challenged. Authors have a right to be asked for permission to print their work or correspondence, we were told. There are Rules, we were admonished.
True, but the thing is, they are not our rules. The concept of intellectual property (which, frankly, we find rather abhorrent) and the rules around it, only make sense within a specific context or set. Certainly people who make a living from writing have a right to protect their livelihood. Dispatches would never do something to undermine a fellow writer’s livelihood. We don’t need a code or rules to understand that.
But the material we posted was not of that order. It was a freewheeling public exchange of ideas about issues of interest to us and our readers that would never otherwise have been published. In fact, the aggrieved party tried to suppress it. And then, apparently oblivious to the irony, turned around and published each and every one of the so-called “private” emails on his blog–along with a gauche detour to ineptly vilify one of the editors of Dispatches.
It is true we could have asked for permission, but the aggrieved party some time ago told us quite clearly and forcefully never to darken his doorstep again, much less email him (something to do with a tape liberated from an institutional vault where it had been withheld from the community). So rather than darkening his stoop, being told No, and then doing it anyway, we just skipped the middle part and did it. And we can do that because like Emerson’s boys in the parlour, we are beholden to no one, are assured of a dinner, and have no stake in any of the Poetry Field power games that are undergirded by those rules.
We don’t win prizes. We don’t get grants. And we don’t care. We are not seeking promotions. Or readings or publications or jobs. Not only do we not get paid to do this, we actually pay for it ourselves (with the help of an occasional angel). We don’t even care whether people read Dispatches or not. We’d like them to, but if they want to stop, they are welcome to. It won’t affect our decisions one way or the other. This is what Autonomous in Temporary Autonomous Zone stands for.
Our rules have to do with always enabling circulation (as opposed to, say, accumulation or possession), especially the circulation of ideas. And when we see someone using the notion of intellectual property not to defend their livelihood, but as a cover to obstruct and control the circulation of ideas, we get cranky.
Number 1 TAZ Rule: important questions and ideas should be discussed publicly and as widely as possible and no bullshit claims to “ownership” of words should be allowed to obstruct that, especially by people with a history of trying to obsessively control the narrative by using bourgeois property law to interfere with and if possible prevent circulation of materials relevant to a fully informed conversation within the community.
Aside from the outrage at the desecration of intellectual private property, a couple of other lines of criticism are currently in play. One has it that the exchange isn’t worth circulating because it simply rehearses an old conflict that no one any longer is interested in – just some agro boys beating a dead horse. Another goes, why can’t we all just be nice to each other. And related to that, a third demands that we be more tolerant of diversity, as if the aim of any argument over poetics was to eliminate all opposition and achieve homogeneity rather than getting along with other points of view.
Dispatches intends to come back to the question of the value of the Watten/Mackey debate’s content at a later time. Right now, however, we’d like to end this Dispatch with a quick glance at the question of diversity. Those who accuse Dispatches of being intolerant of diversity seem to think they know what it is. We would like to suggest that their notion of “diversity” may be a bit limited to relations of “inclusion” and “getting along.” Our understanding of diversity is somewhat different. It involves coming into relation with the uncontainable and making a place for it to enter the conversation. You don’t have to get along. You have to listen, whether you like it or not. Which is very different from forms of “inclusion” that often imply strategies of containment. To embrace diversity is to come into an active relation of open exchange with that which can’t be got along with or included or contained. That which can’t be digested.
Welcome to Dispatches and its perennial agita.