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The Pirate's Prophet: On Lewis Hyde | The Nation

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The Pirate's Prophet: On Lewis Hyde

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In the fall of 1956, a young editor at Fortune magazine published a worrywart prospectus of corporate culture and its corrosive effects on American genius. The man was William Whyte, once a traveling salesman for Vick's VapoRub and later a mentor to Jane Jacobs, and the book was called The Organization Man.

Common as Air
Revolution, Art, and Ownership.
By Lewis Hyde.
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About the Author

David Wallace-Wells
David Wallace-Wells is an editor at The Paris Review.

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It was a peculiar little book—a jeremiad in a gray flannel suit—and it made for a peculiar bestseller, but a telling one. In that decade and the one that followed, dozens, if not hundreds, of popular works of speculative sociology were published—The Lonely Crowd, The Power Elite, The Triumph of the Therapeutic—as postwar America found its imperial footing through ever more elaborate feats of self-scrutiny. But The Organization Man distinguished itself through its emphasis on the fate of science, and the plight of the scientist, in an era of company men and corporate ketman that Whyte believed was "not only repelling talent but smothering it." "Management has tried to adjust the scientist to The Organization rather than The Organization to the scientist," he wrote. "It can do this with the mediocre and still have a harmonious group. It cannot do this with the brilliant; only freedom will make them harmonious." "The first-rate man has a prior intellectual commitment," he warned; "in no field, except the arts, does the elevation of administrative values hold more dangers."

This central anxiety of The Organization Man, that scientific inquiry demands insulation against corporatism, was echoed by many leaders of the sociologist caste—Thomas Kuhn, Talcott Parsons, Michael Polanyi and, most pusillanimous, Robert Merton, long credited with initiating the sociological study of science, and now largely known for coining the terms "self-fulfilling prophecy" and "unintended consequence." "The substantive findings of science are a product of social collaboration and are assigned to the community," Merton noted. "They constitute a common heritage in which the equity of the individual producer is severely limited." This was not by accident: "By the rationale of the scientific ethic," Merton wrote, "property rights in science are whittled down to a bare minimum." Communism, "in the nontechnical and extended sense," he said, was an "integral element" of that ethic, and an element that demanded protection: "The communism of the scientific ethos is incompatible with the definition of technology as 'private property' in a capitalistic society."

But the experience of cold war scientists, captured in what the historian Steven Shapin calls the "shop-floor" literature of trade journals and testimonials, memoirs and memorandums, suggests that this perceived conflict between corporate values and scientific inquiry might be a "total illegitimacy." "With vanishingly few exceptions—exceptions that may dissolve on further investigation—unhappy industrial scientists," Shapin writes, of the kind forewarned by Whyte, "just do not exist." This phenomenon was in part a credit to the ingenuity of corporations in assimilating and accommodating the values of free inquiry in the supervisory age of industrial psychology. As Shapin points out, the governing aphorism "When you lock the laboratory door, you lock out more than you lock in" comes not from Merton or Whyte but from Charles "Boss" Kettering of General Motors, who also insisted, famously, "You can't keep books on research."

But it was also a credit to the ingenuity of science. In the half-century since the publication of The Organization Man, the imperious enterprise then called "applied science" and now "technology" has triumphed spectacularly, and the story of the resilience and adaptability of scientific inquiry is among the major narratives of these consumer decades. Despite perennial fears that guided practice will crowd out the pursuit of "pure science," the pace of new research seems only to have quickened: one can argue that the benefits of research have been distributed inequitably, even unethically, but one can no longer argue, with Merton and Whyte, that the scientific enterprise is necessarily incompatible with the major source of its funding. We live in a culture shaped by the insights of science, engraved with its worldview and governed almost totally by respect for its authority, even as "the old notion of the scientist as hero has been replaced," as the linguist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker has put it, "by the idea of scientists as amoral nerds at best." The near-complete eclipse of self-directed science surely disappointed those, like Merton and Whyte, who cherished the vision of the tinkering scientist as Romantic genius, but professionalization has been a tremendous boon not just to those drawing paychecks from laboratory research but for those many more of us drawing dividends. In his landmark 1959 lecture "The Two Cultures," C.P. Snow may have lamented the relative stature of science in a postwar establishment enamored with the humanities—but, as Shapin has written, "he was presiding not at a funeral but at a christening."

* * *

Today it is that other culture, the arts, that feels itself imperiled. Not just by the ascendant sciences—though that challenge can be seen in the resort to evolutionary psychology and neuroscience among novelists, literary critics and philosophers—but also by the corporation, and in particular the corporate ownership of culture, enforced by a copyright regime that has grown steadily since its eighteenth-century inception from fourteen years, to twenty-eight, to fifty and presently to seventy years after death for individuals and ninety-five for corporations. The public storehouse of natural science and vernacular culture that lies beyond the threshold of those protections has shown itself vulnerable, too, to private capture, as companies and entrepreneurs claim more and more material in the name of what has come to be known as intellectual property—"an idea not just new but historically strange," Lewis Hyde writes in his new, bracing Common as Air, an exhortative history of cultural propriety. "It belongs to our times, to be sure, but if we are to examine it with any care it helps to know how new it really is; it's newer than automobiles, newer than lightbulbs, newer than jazz."

In recent years there has been a challenge mounted by a small army of revanchist writers to the dispiriting portrait of the artist as organization man—a contrasting portrait of the artist as confidence man, pirate, plagiarist and thief. The artist in this portrait is a troublemaker, and the volume of trouble is thought to be a decent proxy for the value of artwork. It is a vision of creative labor as a form of permanent revolution.

Hyde is ringleader and chief theorist to these free culture warriors—a poet and critic, moralist and communitarian. Common as Air is only his third work of nonfiction, and he has been laboring over it for more than a decade. He describes himself as a "scholar without institution," but he has appointments at Harvard and Kenyon, and another at a Cambridge architecture firm where he works, rent-free, as a "poet in residence." He has not published a book of poems since 1988. It is his only book of poems.

Hyde's reputation and near-shamanic aura have arisen, instead, almost entirely from his first book, The Gift, a beguiling work of associative anthropology published in 1983. In it, Hyde depicts a glorious "economy of the creative spirit," a "shadow economy" in which artworks are bestowed as gifts rather than traded as commodities. For Hyde it is an economy irreconcilable with our conventional systems of property, value and exchange. The Gift is often said to be difficult, if not impossible, to summarize, but it is in fact quite easy to describe. The book is a sentimental curio, an artifact of our congenital cult of the artist and a survey and prehistory of what might be called the null-commodity fetish—the preference, particularly acute among the creative classes, for work antagonistic to establishment values, for careers insulated against the unseemly forces of acquisitive exchange, for market spandrels rather than market darlings. Throughout, Hyde works with distinctions, between noble pursuits and corrupt ones, familiar to readers of Whyte and Merton but borrowed from religious discourse: in place of divinity he substitutes creativity; in place of the sacred, the expressive; in place of the oracle or priest, the artist and writer.

The Gift is an elegantly Romantic book, and writers have been predictably flattered by it, praising Hyde to kindred spirits and passing the book among themselves as a kind of talisman. Margaret Atwood has said that she maintains a collection of a half-dozen copies, so that she might always have one at hand when counseling a young artist or writer. ("It gets at the core of their dilemma: how to maintain yourself alive in the world of money, when the essential part of what you do cannot be bought or sold.") Geoff Dyer, Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace have all praised The Gift as a major touchstone, not merely an incisive study but, as Smith has suggested, a road map to the writing life with a special key to what makes it uniquely valuable: "A manifesto of sorts for anyone who makes art, cares for it and understands that our most precious possessions are not for sale and the greatest contracts are achieved without anyone signing on the dotted line."

The Gift has also captivated a set of theorists and writers—Henry Jenkins, Lawrence Lessig, Richard Stallman, Siva Vaidhyanathan and Jonathan Zittrain, to name a handful—devoted to the proposition that intellectual property is a paradox and the American copyright regime a corporate handout. The cultural patrimony of past generations is best honored, they believe, through open appropriation, condoned by what is often called the principle of "the commons"—the idea that our relationship to culture should be made to mirror the relationship of peasants to land in late medieval and early modern England. That is, our cultural patrimony should be owned collectively, used in common and governed by a regime of informal customs oriented not toward profit but against it.

More than two decades after its publication, The Gift continues to rally those who have imported this hacker ethos into the realm of cultural production, who declare that if we believe in culture then we must ensure that it is "free." (The word "free" has many meanings. That the free culture movement comprises a strange and contradictory alliance of people with various political and cultural identities—libertarians and anarchists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and East Coast artists—is in part a testament to its elasticity.) Jonathan Lethem, who has called The Gift an "epiphany, in sculpted prose," outed himself as a plagiarist of Hyde in a carefully calibrated essay on copyright and intellectual property for Harper's Magazine in which he, describing all good artwork as plagiaristic, called for balder appropriation. In Reality Hunger, a commonplace book of aphorisms and appropriations, essayist David Shields, too, declares war on intellectual property. "Reality cannot be copyrighted," Shields avows. "Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn't apologize."

The portrait of the artist as bandit is at the center of Hyde's second treatise, Trickster Makes This World, published in 1998. Trickster is a meandering foray into the study of myth, and of that truth-teller troublemaker living just beyond society who goes by the names of Hermes, Mercury and Coyote, among others. The book is less esteemed than The Gift (although it is Michael Chabon's favorite of Hyde's works) and is more rarely discussed than Common as Air is sure to be. But it may be Hyde's most exemplary work, a richly detailed but loosely conceived anthropological picaresque—anthropology in the nineteenth-century sense of collecting artifacts as a demonstration of sophistication rather than assembling them into a reliable and coherent narrative.

Hyde's new book brings his previous two into binocular focus and should gratify his devotees as well as those free culture advocates who believe that the work of artists and writers demands resistance to the market. In it, Hyde extends the proposition that collective ownership of culture should be not just a political ideal or a legal goal but a noble and actionable form of nonviolent resistance. Common as Air is a deeply felt tribute to piracy—and in particular to those American pirates known to most of us more prosaically as the founding fathers.

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