A Tangle of Thorns

One reason that I love the exotic, eclectic neighborhoods of the free culture world is because of the playful tricksters who live there. You just never know what surprise will startle you with a blast of brilliant creative zest. The latest evidence of this came tumbling through my (figurative) transom today in the form of a web link. A J. Sandoz suggested that I might be interested in a beguiling literary work that he (she?) had discovered at the Internet Archive — a mashup of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita with Lawrence Lessig’s The Future of Ideas.

Now there’s a concept that hadn’t occurred to me!

Naturally, I checked it out immediately. If you go to this link you will be able to read an 85-page work of twisted genius called A Tangle of Thorns: The Fair Use of the Commons in a Transformative World, by Otto Lambert. (The protagonist of Lolita, recall, was Humbert Humbert.) The book improbably manages to blend the warped, salacious obsessions of Humbert Humbert with Lessig’s earnest polemics about intellectual property. The strange thing is, the mashup is a great read!

Just as Danger Mouse startled the world with his masterful mashup of the Beatles’ White Album with Jay-Z’s Black Album (see, especially, the incredible video mashup that the song inspired!), so the putative Otto Lambert does a fantastic job in blending the perverse themes of Lolita with the spirited dissents of Lessig. In a weird, unexpected way, the two books play off of each other with a great deal of artistic crackle.

Eager to explicate my reactions, I chased down this literary criticism of Lolita (as summarized by Wikipedia):

Martin Amis, in his essay on Stalinism, Koba the Dread, proposes that Lolita is an elaborate metaphor for the totalitarianism that destroyed the Russia of Nabokov’s childhood (though Nabokov states in his Afterword that he “[detests] symbols and allegories”). Amis interprets it as a story of tyranny told from the point of view of the tyrant. “Nabokov, in all his fiction, writes with incomparable penetration about delusion and coercion, about cruelty and lies”, he says. “Even Lolita, especially Lolita, is a study in tyranny.”

Since Lessig’s Future of Ideas is about the totalitarian aspirations of copyright industries — their cruel and coercive use of copyright law to utterly control our creative lives and culture for their own sick (economic) purposes — a mashup of Lolita and Lessig may not be as far-fetched as one might initially think.

So how does it all work? Here are two samples from pages 69 and 71:

“You douchenozzle,” she said, smiling sweetly. “Look what you’ve done to me. I should call the police and tell them you raped me.”

Here, too, the architecture of the space is changing–interfering with the features that made innovation so rich. And the consequence again will be a decrease in this value.

Picture the leaders of dominant industries, faced with a disruptive technology. What is their rational response? The perfect marketeers presume the leaders of dinosaur firms would spin those firms on a dime, to become something radically different. But why would one believe that? Faced with a disruption that threatens an entire way of life, what is the rational response?

Was she joking? An ominous hysterical note rang through her silly words. Then she started complaining of pains, saying I’d torn something inside her. The sweat rolled down my neck, and she started swearing at me.  …..

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At the next hotel we took two double beds, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made up very gently.

You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.

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Changes threaten the power of those now in power; they will work in turn to protect themselves from the changes. There’s nothing immoral in this desire. This is not a battle between good and evil. Stockholders demand that management maximize its income; we shouldn’t expect management to do anything different. But even if this is “only business” to them, that does not mean it should be “just business” for us.

You have your interests; I have mine.

The mashup author who goes by Otto Lambert does have a deft touch. He/she splices the two books together with aplomb and even indulges in some of his own wordplay. For example, the filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, who is mentioned in the opening of The Future of Ideas, is recast here as “Gavin Davenheim.” Ha-ha.

For those of you who plan to read A Tangle of Thorns in its entirety, don’t read any further because I wish to excerpt the conclusion, which strangely, ingeniously and with admirable indirection, enlists Nabokov into the cause of free culture:

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We are marching backward, undoing the architecture without anyone demonstrating why this change is needed. We are moving resources from the commons into a system of control without an argument about why control will help or why the commons will fail. We are jumping in the name of an ideology without any consideration of the facts.

So why are we making these changes?

There is a dark story to be told.

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For some reason, I kept seeing–trembling and glowing on my retina–a radiant child of twelve, sitting on a back porch, pinging pebbles at an empty can.

I can think of any number of free culture luminaries who may have been responsible for this inspired mashup; Jamie Boyle and Cory Doctorow — both published novelists — come to mind. And even Lessig himself. Or maybe there is an actual Otto Lambert. I can’t explain how the work can be licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial license if Otto Lambert is not real. (To be legitimate, a CC license can be used only by the copyright owner.) Another perplexity: How can anyone claim a copyright on this mashup if the two works from which it draws are still under copyright protectiion? Perhaps that is part of the point of the work.

No matter. For any number of reasons, A Tangle of Thorns deserves to go viral — and provoke some thoughtful reflection on the perversity of control: the subject that lies at the heart of both books.