Lewis Hyde can just cut right through culture, as when he says, "Carried over time [irony] is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage."Am I the only one who thinks that all reality TV should be preceded by a Surgeon General’s warning with this quote in block letters? (That quote can be found in "Alcoholism and Poetry,"an essay which deals with self-absorption, irony and addiction in relation to art and modern culture, and is a major source for many of the sentiments in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.)
Hyde’s new book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, is an argument for an overhaul in our thinking about "intellectual property."Hyde’s a realist —he knows that artists and intellectuals should be rewarded for their work, and that something like copyright is necessary for this; but for Hyde (and, historically speaking, for the US Supreme Court), these rewards are an incentive to create public goods, not some demonstration of a fundamental right. In discussing this, Hyde is led back to his favorite subject: modern culture’s worship of the self over and above what might lie outside of and actually nourish the self. The original sin in Hyde’s cosmology is believing that the things we do actually belong to us in any meaningful way —he would even question the idea that we belong to ourselves, as opposed to, say, our communities, or nature, or some spiritual oneness. To make some of his more subtle points about copyright and how some issues have been conceived historically, Hyde gives a nuanced account of the Founding Fathers’ ideas about the products of the mind. In between the lines of an excellent history of America’s attitudes about art and ideas, Hyde wants to let us know that our whole conception of selfhood and its products, our insistence on ownership, is corroding our souls.