Copied worlds

Jane Goodall, University of Western Sydney

Marcus Boon In Praise of Copying, Harvard, Harvard University Press, 2013 (304 pp). ISBN 9-78067407-252-7 (paperback) RRP $27.69.

What do you see when you look in the mirror? Do you worry about identity theft? Have you ever bought a designer fake? Could you see forgery as an art form? Have you ever made an illegal download? Have you ever had a nightmare about your evil twin? Do you believe in parallel worlds? These questions open onto many different lines of speculation, but Marcus Boon is interested in how they are interconnected. They are all, in some sense, about copying.

On one level, this is an everyday topic, related to concerns about intellectual property, fraud and cheating. On another, it taps into some profoundly philosophical ideas. Marcus Boon’s book, In Praise of Copying, is a blend of cultural studies and metaphysics, and for me the appeal is more in the metaphysical register, though Boon seeks to articulate a point of view from which the perspectives are fused. He is particularly influenced by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, and the book opens with a story about this teacher.

After one of the Rinpoche’s public talks, an audience member gets up and asks how he can experience a non-conceptual state. ‘Go to Disney, Space Station 2’, says the Rinpoche. ‘Go to scary movements, amusement park rides. And when you’re frightened, meditate by saying, “This is a dream”, or “I died and this is a bardo”’ (bardo being a transitional state between one incarnation and another, during which dreams of past existences may arise.)

Moving across to the domain of cultural theory, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard offered an equally mind-bending view of Disneyland in his 1981 book Simulacra and Simulations. In the media dominated world of replicas and images that is modern America, he argued, the ‘reality principle’ is in distress. Everything we see is a copy or reproduction of something else, and so, in a perfect reversal of logic, Disneyland, by the fact that it is so patently a work of fantasy, helps to give the illusion that whatever is not Disneyland must be real. ‘Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland’ (excerpted in Baudrillard 1988, p. 172).

There is, of course, a crucial difference between Baudrillard’s view and that of the Tibetan Buddhist. For Baudrillard, the loss of the reality principle is a consequence of cultural evolution, which has taken us progressively away from any grounding in material reality as it draws us more and more deeply into a world of images. In the Buddhist doctrine of Samsara, as Boon explains it, the world of matter is itself ‘an omnipresent field of deception’. A Buddhist view of the phenomenal world accords copying a primordial and cosmological significance: ‘It is the emptiness of all phenomena, their lack of essence, which makes copying possible’, and indeed, ‘makes it possible for anything to appear at all’ (p. 19). For an embodied being, there is no ontological primacy that enables a distinction to be made between copy and original.

To take a stance in praise of copying is to become involved in a loaded argument.

In a later chapter, Marcus Boon tells the story of the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu, who dreamed he was a butterfly, then woke to realise he was Chuang Tzu, until a second realisation dawned. Perhaps he was indeed the butterfly, dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. The butterfly and the sage are copies of each other; a certain consciousness repeats itself in their vastly different life forms. The point of Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche’s advice about Disneyland is that a thrill ride may serve to jolt us out of a mode of consciousness that clings to delusory forms.

In Buddhist terms, then, we have the idea of experiencing a mind-bending ride in a theme park as a means of switching planes of consciousness, so that we can see this world and this life as one of multiplying illusions. But there is also a simpler kind of copying to be considered: Tibetan monasteries, Indian temples and Disney theme parks have in common a capacity to generate copies. They are designed as modular blue-prints, from which a whole precinct can be realised. Is copying an issue of originals and imitations—here we are in the zone of cultural studies—or of repeated essenceless forms, as in the domain of Buddhist philosophy?

In any philosophical discussion of forms, essences and illusions it is hard to avoid the legacy of Plato, with his vision of the mortal world as a cave whose inner wall reflects forms and images from an open world outside. Human consciousness is focused on the reflections as the only reality we can see or recognise. The forms outside the range of our vision belong to a higher order of being and reality than anything we know.

Illusion and delusion are states of false consciousness, so the implication is pejorative, and this is where Boon wants to make another kind of existential argument. ‘What if copying, rather than being an aberration or a mistake or a crime, is a fundamental condition or requirement for anything, human or not, to exist at all?’ (p. 3). Copying is programmed into us, both in evolutionary terms as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and as a cultural practice. We cannot even learn to function and communicate in the social world without copying.

‘There are many that I know and they know it. They are all of them repeating and I hear it. I love it and I tell it. I love it and now I will write it’. This quotation from Gertrude Stein’s mammoth novel The Making of Americans appears as an epigraph to In Praise of Copying. It is curious that Stein does not make an appearance elsewhere in the book, since her novel also presents a version of the insight central to its thesis: ‘repeating then is in every one, in every one their being and their feeling and their way of realizing everything and everyone comes out of them in repeating’ (Stein 2008, p. 102). Or as Boon himself puts it ‘suppose copying is what makes us human?’ (p. 3). Stein’s more poetic and impressionistic formulation carries the sense that we repeat ourselves—and others—as an essential form of human connectedness.

To take a stance in praise of copying is, as he indicates here, to become involved in a loaded argument, since the default position on copying is one of censure. Mounting the case for an ethical reversal involves some engagement with the different modes and levels of transgression. At one end of the spectrum, there are everyday matters of infringement. Copying is part of the process of teaching and learning, but plagiarism is misconduct, and students are so burdened by awareness of this that, Boon claims, ‘they live in a constant state of vague, unarticulated guilt’ (p. 5).

In a Platonic world, all created forms are reflections or shadows of the idea.

Issues of copyright protection and intellectual property have become pervasive in the commercial world, and here Boon takes up the case of the Louis Vuitton bag, which, as he delves into it, proves to be the perfect receptacle for the containment and organisation of some key components of his argument. There’s some flair and virtuosity in the way he handles it, as there is in the way the LV bag itself circulates through an international trade in counterfeits. The journey from the flea market rip-off to the high-end replica is one that runs through the spectrum from vulgar commodity fetishism to a kind of quasi metaphysics. At he finds on offer ‘replica bags with the same Alcantra lining, quality cowhide leather given a finish that oxidises to a dark honey just the way the original Louis Vuitton handbags colour as they age, authentically original imitations of the real originals’ (p. 17). It’s a Platonic world out there, but even as they evoke the domain of ideal forms, the team at Basicreplica find themselves in some very mundane trouble. If you go to the site now, the crafted prose has gone, and in its place is a short message in very large, bold font, stating that the website owners were found liable in a Federal civil action for damages in excess of a million dollars, and ordered to transfer the domain name to Chanel and Louis Vuitton.

From a conceptual point of view, the notion of copying is a Pandora’s Box, opening up a plethora of ideas and associations. The challenge of providing enough thematic control to create a coherent book looms large, but rather than working to delimit the scope, Boon seems to relish the intellectual promiscuity towards which his argument tends. For the reader, the effect is something of a brainstorm. Impressed as I was by the virtuosity and cogency, I found the proliferation of enquiry lines rather wearing by the time I got half way through. The Vuitton handbag was making too many appearances, becoming more of a hold-all, like Mary Poppins’s carpet bag, from which all manner of things may emerge.

Copying by definition involves repetition and reproduction, and therefore leads to multiplication. Reproduction can lead to mass production, and the cornucopia of things available to us in the consumer society. Conceptual issues fork in all directions. You can buy a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling in many different editions, but you can also buy another kind of Harry Potter copy, in the form of an attempt by some other author to catch the appeal by copying the ingredients of the story. You can buy a jar of vegemite from a supermarket shelf on which there are several dozen identical jars, all copies made from a prototype, but are they copies of an original? And then there is the case of Warhol’s iconography, in which the art is more in the repetition than in the image per se.

In a Platonic world, all created forms are reflections or shadows of the ideal. While it is hard to see how this applies to the proliferating array of vegemite jars, there is a sense in which the world of commodities, with its uploads and downloads from immaterial zones and its ever growing Cloud, is becoming more Platonic by the decade. Plato does not hold Marcus Boon’s attention for long, as the lines of argument head off towards the areas of mimesis, appropriation and montage. Given that these are concepts so heavily worked over in recent decades, I’m not sure anything new is offered here.

The late twentieth century critical literature in cultural studies, film studies and literary theory is much preoccupied with the theme of the double and the replica. Those who gave the topic a good stir include Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, René Girard and Jean Baudrillard. Through their mediations, the associated terminology branched out: the simulacrum, replication, repetition, reproduction, montage, appropriation, mimicry and mimesis, double and dopplegangers became the stuff of countless journal articles.

Copying is, as Boon shows, one of the great topics of metaphysics.

One of the driving forces of the cultural studies movement was a concern about being relevant. Philosophers and other humanities scholars sought to make observations about the phenomena of everyday life, instead of confining their attentions to great works and the traditions of argument arising from them. Isn’t the average citizen more interested in Disneyland or designer goods than in Plato? That’s a fair challenge, but are most of us really interested in reading densely developed arguments about popular culture? And where has all this debate and argument really got us?

Yet there is clearly a widespread interest in Buddhism and other forms of meditation-based religion. Copying is, as Boon shows, one of the great topics of metaphysics. I wish he had stayed longer with the Buddhists and Platonists, as in this terrain the study could do with some further exploration. From Platonism, the road leads to the lesser-known terrain of the Gnostics, who understood creation as the work of an arch-deceiver, a demiurge whose illegitimate work trapped living beings in the prison of matter. Boon makes a couple of passing references to Gnosticism, as if somehow aware that it cannot be left out, but in doing so invokes the spectre of one giant and curiously absent figure amidst the throng of writers and thinkers with whom he engages.

The modern Gnostic whose writings were the inspiration for so many of the arch-mages of late 20th century critical theory was Jorge Luis Borges. In a series of extraordinary short stories written in the post war period, Borges weaves a poetics of the copy as an expression of the state of a world that escapes human cognition. To take one example, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, first published in 1941, recounts a scholar’s quest for an article that appears in a rogue copy of the 1902 Encyclopædia Britannica. This copy contains a four page entry missing from all others, that provides information about the domain of Uqbar, where citizens regard the visible universe as a wilfully imposed illusion. To them, mirrors are abominable because they multiply and disseminate the imposture and, because they reject plurality and repetition, they have no concept of copying. Plagiarism does not exist in this tertiary globe, because there is no such thing as authorship: all men are the same one man, and every one who speaks a line of Shakespeare is Shakespeare.

It’s a head-turning read, this story, and part of its power is its economy. Though Boon does not allude to it, I must credit his line of enquiry with taking me back to it. To revisit the poetic world of Borges is to be reminded of how the discursive mode of conventional criticism is a cumbersome means of dealing with cosmological themes. This is not to deny that there is a place for discursive criticism, but as Borges took over the mental ground Boon’s study had opened up, the border between conceptual and non-conceptual states was in play in ways that elude the scope of discursive argument. You can argue about whether copying (as in the case of the Vuitton bag or the popular novel) is a good thing or a bad thing; to ask whether it is good or evil is to play a very different game, and one in which the questions multiply at every turn.


Baudrillard, J. 1988, ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, in Selected Writings, ed. M. Poster, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Stein, G. 2008, ‘The Making of Americans’ (excerpt), in Selections, ed. J. Retallack, University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Jane Goodall is an Adjunct Professor with the Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney. She is the author of three crime novels (published by Hachette) and her most recent academic book is Stage Presence (Routledge 2009). Her essays have appeared recently in The Griffith Review, Anne Summers Reports and Inside Story.

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