The Failure To Copy

A cfp came through MCLC the other day. The announcement, couched in the alarmist language typical to culture studies, ran as follows :

Counterfeit Capital seminar
Call for Papers

Ours is an age of the copy—not only because new technologies have naturalized (real or virtual) duplication, but because the theories we live and think by have ushered in the death of the origin(al). And yet, some mechanisms and processes of reproduction appear more duplicitous than others, avatars of “bad resemblances” whose interpretation of the original – by way of fakery, piracy, inter- or cross-cultural derivation – forces us to reexamine persisting hegemonic configurations that distinguish between originals and imitations. For what makes us perceive difference as difference (rather than as resemblance); and what politics determine which resemblance should be celebrated and which denigrated? In the context of global capitalism the conjunction of economic pragmatics and prejudiced cultural politics produce and frame certain forms of duplication. But can there be any capital or capitalization (economic, political, cultural, theoretical) without duplication?

Imitation, copying, duplication what have you–it’s all part of life in China. We buy up knock-off goods by the armload. We moan about Chinese stealing our intellectual property. We shake our heads when they build replicas of the White House or Versailles. We debate how authentic the Mexican food is. To put it terms the cfp might comprehend, there is a generalized “anxiety of the real” which informs our hermeneutics here.

But no, that’s not quite right. Because in my opinion, China doesn’t copy; China fails to copy.

Before October holiday, DJ Manet was at a wedding in a place outside Shanghai called Thames Town. What is this Thames Town? To quote City Weekend:

Way back in 2001, urban planners in Shanghai initiated the “One City, Nine Towns” project, which aimed to decentralize the city by building nine unique satellite towns modeled after cities from other countries. With the aid of international architects, it seemed that we could finally gape in wonder at Dutch windmills or take calls from a British red telephone box without even leaving the confines of our city.

In the course of his explorations, DJ Manet was taken by a powerful thirst and since he was in Thames Town, he did what any good English chap would do: he sought a pint of ale. None was to be found anywhere amongst the telephone booths and cathedrals and canals. That’s because Thames Town simply replicated a few visual cues, but failed to identify and replicate the DNA of a typical English village. In short, Thames Town is a failed attempt at copying.

The landscape of contemporary China is littered with the carcasses of similar failures.

The key phrase from the cfp is: “forces us to reexamine persisting hegemonic configurations that distinguish between originals and imitations.” That to me suggests a difficulty in distinguishing between originals and imitations and presumably by critically looking at the ideological apparatus which helps us distinguish real from fake we can know ourselves better and, hence, be more free. Seriously, who has a hard time distinguishing between Shanghai’s Thames Town and a real English village? The Chinese people who flock there on weekends to have wedding photos taken?

America had a similar problem in the beginning. Before we had invented things like pragmatism and computers and fast food, we were pretty much just imitating Europe. Europeans at the time likewise mocked our failed attempts. We’re not a nation of hereditary dukes, so trying to build palaces on plantation was a little ridiculous. Nonetheless over time, something grew out of America’s failure to replicate old Europe, just as something is growing out of China’s failure to replicate the west.

It makes sense–failure is how things evolve. RNA transcription is an imperfect process. Errors are made and these errors become the biological basis for evolutionary selectable traits. Failure here makes populations robust.

Of course what we really need here is psychology. Do we bring in Zelig or break out the electrodes and start measuring? On the one hand, we need brain maps of people–singly and in groups–consuming things a) they know to be authentic, b) they know to be replicas and c) they aren’t sure about. On the other hand, we need to get away from the “anxiety of the real” and the crisis of authentication which drives so much of Western economic culture. The hermeneutic doesn’t hold in China. Probably because there is no “origin(al)” to be compromised.

It’s not about being fooled by fakes. It would be easy enough to solve that with some simple technologies. But we don’t do it because such a solution wouldn’t help us. It might free us, but it certainly wouldn’t help us.

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