In her 1998 intervention, The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law, Rosemary J. Coombe explores the dialectical dimension of culture and jurisprudence by expanding the intersectionality of cultural studies, socio-legal studies, and post-modernity theory. Framing her analysis as critical cultural legal studies, Rosemary breaks with the-then compartmentalized foci, and instead chooses to interrelate understandings regarding the how everyday social experiences are culturally influenced by law; more specifically, the role that intellectual property rights has had on appropriating and formulating identity. By qualifying the importance of an “ethnographic approach to the social life of intellectual properties” (37), Rosemary breaks from antiquated methodological trajectories rooted in Western epistemological practices of anthropology. Invested in understanding “conditions of production [and] consumption” (17), The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties borrows from cultural studies and post-modernity to present the argument that “intellectual property regimes…play a constitutive role in the creation of contemporary cultures and in the social life of interpretive practice” (6). In short, it seems Rosemary’s project is to locate, qualify, and evidence the role that identity, differences, and cultures relate with one another within the larger landscape of consumerism and the text by which they are protected and perpetuated (27).
    Among the major arguments that Rosemary stresses is of the importance to connect how legal practices have redefined everyday exhibitions of American culture. She adopts cultural studies’ notion of culture to be “neither autonomous nor an externally determined field, but [rather] a site of social differences and struggles” (17). This social contestation, appropriation, and rearticulation are exemplified most notably in her section on the role of trademarks. Suggesting that the signifying importance of trademarks today lies in its influence in creating the “visual culture of the nation”, she historically explains how the law and the rise of “marking” the body resulted in the “standardization of American culture” (173). Doing so, the author problematizes intellectual property discourse and its historical perpetuation of social differences and antagonisms. Ranging in examples from how authenticate local Mexican food customs can be appropriated through fast food corporate monopolies, or how corporate sport entities continue to influence white America’s [false] notions of First Peoples not as savages or even as victims of colonial genocide, but rather, “pay a form of tribute to Native Americans by alluding to their bravery and fighting spirit” (189).
    Like Foucault’s articulation that power is omnipresent, Rosemary elaborates that current intellectual property discourses also provide spaces for resistance and ruptures. For example, in analyzing the contestation of Lakota statesman Crazy Horse by a malt liquor corporation, Rosemary writes that “ironically, the most successful way for indigenous peoples to challenge these stereotypical representations of themselves may be to claim them: to claim the misrecognitions of others as their own proprietary products” (199). In so doing, moments of addressing historical inaccuracies, cultural appropriation, and producing possible non-colonial imaginaries for social relations can come about. Furthermore, by looking at the role of trademarks in social and cultural relations today, we begin to find possible moments of rupture within the historically dominant violent spaces, i.e. legal courtrooms.

Discussion Questions:

1) In the recent 2013 presidential inaugural address, Barack H. Obama historicized the rhetoric of “we the people” to evoke to the U.S. public of the value that American progress continues to hold in securing the promises of liberal individual freedom. Including minorities—women, non-heterosexuals, immigrants—to have a stake in the American Dream, how might we view this as an example of what Rosemary views as authoring alterity?

2) In envisioning her notion of what a dialogical democracy public space might look like in an age of cultural commodification, Rosemary distinguishes between having “equal access to the forums and channels of communication”, by stressing the importance of having “appropriate access” (296). Given that any possibility in the cultivation of this dialogical democracy will require a modification of higher education institutions, is it even possible to not “privilege [this] particular discursive site” (297) since of the importance colleges and universities play in American youth culture today?

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