|Paper jam: call
The Culture of the Copy:
Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable
Zone Books, New York, 1996, 565
Hillel Schwartz must be impossible
to live with. In The Culture of the Copy, he manages to crowd over five
hundred pages with enough facts to found a new planet. The sheer energy
of the text is exhausting, the number of examples and anecdotes cumulatively
The book opens with a chapter on
the Real McCoy and Schwartz treats us to a thumbnail biography of one Elijah
"...born 1843 into a community of
African-Americans who had escaped from slavery in the South. Taking ship
to Scotland, McCoy apprenticed to a mechanical engineer. Upon his return
across the Atlantic, the job he found with the Michigan Central Railroad
was a fireman, stoking the engine, but between 1872 and 1900 he was awarded
patents on automatic engine-lubricating devices of such reliability that
they were known to the industry as "The Real McCoy". He became a patent
consultant to the railroads and moved to the Detroit area, where after
a long life he died alone in an infirmary in 1929."
This seems totally convincing until
Schwartz introduces his next contender for the title--Bill McCoy, who is
quickly followed by Kid McCoy aka Charles McCoy aka Norman Selby. The Kid,
married ten times (four times to the same woman), was successively a boxer,
an actor, a bankrupt, a diamond dealer, a superintendent of the National
Detective Agency, a car salesman, a racing driver, a boxer, a bankrupt,
a smuggler, a car salesman, a soldier, a film maker, a three-time jealous
murderer, a model prisoner (pardoned) and a suicide.
So much for the preface. This vertigo-inducing
prose never lets up and the characters Schwartz describes in passing only
get stranger. As the book progresses, however, it becomes clear just how
important the author's style is to the subject matter. The very idea of
a copy, replica or duplicate seems to spark deep anxieties in our society
while, at the same time, we breed reproductions on a dizzying scale. Schwartz
points to the inherent paradox of our culture in which: "The more adept
the West has become at the making of copies, the more we have exalted uniqueness.
It is within an exuberant world of copies that we arrive at our experience
of originality." The amphetamine rush of his text parallels this "exuberant
world of copies" and simulates the mental upheaval we experience when confronted
with an exact copy of an 'essentially' unique object.
One of the great shocks of the book
is the extent to which the copy and the technology of copying has permeated
our culture. Schwartz touches on the obvious landmarks, such as identical
twins, photocopiers, mass productions, forgeries, photography, plagiarism,
virtual reality, recording, self-portraits, doppelgängers, decoys,
models and carbon copies. Beyond this, however, he multiplies the everyday
acts of copying we perform--memorising faces, events or telephone numbers,
pressing the save key on a computer keyboard, wearing spectacles to standardise
The ubiquity of the copy is humbling
and in danger of disheartening the reader. To counteract this possibility,
Schwartz peppers the text with a series of beautifully researched biographies
of the key players in the culture of the copy. Whether it is the skewed
imagination of the book's author or sheer luck, many of these characters
led lives Fellini must have scripted.
Take Chester Carlson, for example,
a bumbling lab worker, crippled by spinal arthritis. One of his early diary
entries reads "Pa gone crazy 1924-26". Later in life he contemplated writing
an American Dictionary of Quacks and Fakes and eventually he invented the
Xerox out of his frustration with the need to copy specifications for patents
of his other inventions.
Other, better known, characters
also appear in Schwartz's story but in new, unexpected guises. L. Frank
Baum, writer of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, surfaces in a chapter on shop
dummies where he is revealed as editor of The Show Window and author of
The Art Of Decorating Dry Goods Windows. Schwartz then interprets the Emerald
city as a large show window, creating a sudden and plausible source for
the Tin Man and the Scarecrow as fantastic mannequins. Deeper in the text
we come across Martin Luther King Jr. carefully 'integrating' passages
verbatim from the theologian Paul Tillich into his thesis after his academic
adviser explains that "all modern theology which is competent is essentially
These biographical snapshots are
deliberately quirky, emphasising the finicky, irreproducible eccentricities
of a multitude of individuals. Each bizarre detail of their lives is quietly
celebrated by Schwartz as another example of a world untouched by the copy.
In his use of biography he is consciously arguing for the value of the
individual voice and the positive rewards of tolerating difference. Coming
to the heart of his argument he states that:
"Telling true spirit from false
has never been simple. Our culture of the copy further discourages discernment,
unless it be a kind of doubling back. The more we attempt to tell things
apart, the more we end up defending our skills at replication. The more
intrepid our assertions of individual presence, the more makeshift seem
our identities, the less retrievable our origins. There may come a point
of no return."
To illustrate just how makeshift
our identities can be, Schwartz cites Kid McCoy's accidental meeting with
Charlie Chaplin in a courthouse. While McCoy was there on a count of murder,
Chaplin was suing an impersonator who had imitated his character and costume.
While Chaplin could defend the creation of his costume, the creation of
his character was a different matter and he testified that "I'm unconscious
while I'm acting. I live the role and I am not myself."
The difficulty in pinning down any
'essential' personality runs as an undercurrent throughout the book. In
a fascinating discussion of artists using photocopies to produce work,
Schwartz describes male artists approaching the machine as an instrument
of salvation only to confront existential crises, as in George Mühleck's
black works Copy of the Moon and Copy of the Stars - made by leaving the
copier glass open to the night skies. In contrast, he points to women artists'
use of the copier to celebrate multiple identities or to question imposed
identity as in the work of Pati Hill who praises the copier because: "It
is the side of your subject that you do not see that is reproduced..."
Schwartz obviously takes Hill's
comments to heart in the construction of his own book. After 382 non-stop,
fact-filled pages the main text finally rolls to a halt. Flip the page
and you are then faced with 'The Parallel Universe'--a further 150 pages
of endnotes, a glittering display of reference and arcane comment that
provides almost as much enjoyment as the earlier prose.
Philosophically, the endnotes also
question the originality and 'essence' of the main text, acting as a critique
of Western Scholarship while encouraging the reader to delve further into
a plethora of detail beyond the book's own framework.
In the end, perhaps, the book itself
serves the reader best as a reference tool. Taken as a series of micro-essays
on a wide array of subjects each meditation can stimulate a whole field
of work. Taken as a whole, in one sitting, the reader's head may explode.