Rosemary J. Coombe's The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties (1998) addresses the connections between hegemonic Western legal discourse surrounding intellectual property and the cultures of commodified images. As law is thought of as neutral and abstract (disembodied) and when cultural scholars were (are?) ignoring the impact of law on daily embodied lives, Coombe argues that law and culture are not discrete, bounded entities, that they shape each other and affect how subaltern communities attempt to produce agency.

One of Coombe's goals is to use examples to disrupt the notion that law is a neutral agent and emphasize its structure as rooted in European Enlightenment ideals, which include the notion of the Romantic author and an object in the public realm being considered as private property. She also uses these examples to show how some meaning-makers are able to use the forms embedded in intellectual property law to produce a kind of “counterpublicity,” which involves “articulations that deploy consumer imagery and the bodily impact of the trademark to make the claims of alternative publics and other(ed) national allegiances (184).

Among the various components of this necessarily complicated argument, Coombe brings up points of contention that anthropologists and cultural studies scholars (and, since I’m a folklorist, folklorists) have been arguing for decades: authenticity, tradition, liminality. Coombe works to break down the notion of authenticity, claiming (as other contemporary anthropologists/cultural studies scholars/folklorists are doing) arguing that claims to authenticity “embody contingent concepts integral to Western histories of colonialism and imperialism” (215). In Chapter Five’s discussion of the debate over the ability of white authors in Canada to “create” Native (or other subaltern) characters in fictional works, the arguments against “censorship” and “free expression” on one side come up against arguments about lack of authenticity on the other. But both, Coombe argues, perpetuate the notion of culture as a unitary concept as well as of ideas (or expressions of ideas) that can be “possessed.”

Also with regard to authenticity, Coombe notes that arguments within legal constructs that revolve around the notion of authenticity both essentialize and erase living Native peoples (a practice with a long history in American myth making). Thinking in particular about the Washington Redskins and other professional sports teams, the logos and behaviors of spectators perpetuate a unitary notion of “Indian” that effaces not only the issues Native communities efface but their very bodies. While the battle over sports team logos has been going on for some time now, Coombe notes that, on the professional level, not much real progress has been made, despite the notion of counterpublicity that could potentially produce negative publicity for sports teams owners as well as keep the discussion of racism against Native peoples in the public eye (199).

For Discussion:

How can we connect Coombe’s ideas about authorship to Boyle? Specifically, are there differences in how they conceive of romantic authorship historically? How does Coombe’s use of ethnography complicate or expand upon the critical theory of culture and law that she discusses?

Coombe discusses the conflict behind the methodology of using “proprietary counterclaims” (204) as a way of attaining some form of agency in dealing with the hegemonic Western legal system. Framing these counterclaims as theft of cultural property rather than “assertions of harm” (204) becomes a case of trying to tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools. Coombe notes Handler as saying that such a strategy of using “a language that power understands” is a necessity in order to gain any political power (or even presence) at all (242). Considering her last discussion of free speech/free expression, is an ethics of contingency feasible?

In looking at cases such as the Washington Redskins and others, what is the “usefulness” of counterpublicity as a tactic for transformative social change?

Leave a Reply.