In the Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation and the Law, Coombe (1998) examined the role of authorship and intellectual property vis a vis cultural appropriation within the framework of the law. Specifically, Coombe (1998) used multiple cases of trademark, celebrity, logos and advertising to make the argument that law both engenders and endangers how different individuals, groups and cultures uses these signifiers as points of resistance. Coombe (1998) argued that law has for too long thought of issues of trademarking, intellectual property rights and copywriting as being detached and/or abstracted from the concrete reality of the cultures and societies from which these laws were created. Using a "critical cultural legal studies" framework that draws heavily from postmodern Anthropological studies, Coombe (1998) relatively successfully sought out to connect the abstractions of law to the concrete realities that it is applied to. Within these connections of the abstract with the concrete, Coombe (1998) also dismantled the notion of the "Romantic author" with respect to art and Culture. Throughout the book, Coombe (1998) continually made a persuasive case for creating "...an epistemic shift in our understanding of intellectual properties" (p. 39).
There were several aspects of Coombe's (1998) overall argument that I found interesting. There was one that I am specifically interested in examining closer: her interpretation of the prosthetic body within the public sphere. Specifically, Coombe (1998) made the following observation:
Through the use of trademarks the bourgeois subject was able to secure privileges for his otherwise
unmarked identity, provided that he marked his prosthetic self with a recognizable signs of distinction;
commercial privilege might be marked by the corporeal indicia of publicly recognizable social others. (p.
It is interesting to note that Coombe (1998) is relying heavily (to borrow her term) on Berlant's conceptualization of the prosthetic body. However, in Coombe's (1998) inclusion of Berlant's concept of the prosthetic body, there was the exclusion of Warner's (1992) own conceptualization of the prosthetic body. In Warner's (1990) articulation of the prosthetic body, rather than the body being seen as something that is to be used to secure privilege through specific marking, it can actually be seen as a "blank slate" of sorts. Specifically, Warner (1990) referred to the use of text as a prosthetic body where all of the marks of whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality that would exclude those who did not have them were rendered "invisible." Therefore, those who were Othered were able to enter the public sphere as an equal to everyone else. This interpretation of the prosthetic body has once again gained salience within the virtual realms of the Internet.
This critique of Berlant via Coombe's (1998) conceptualization of the prosthetic body is incorrect or misguided, but rather as a way to help strengthen Coombe's own point that often meanings, authorship and appropriations are contextually bound and unstable. For Coombe (1998) the concept of the prosthetic body as a tool for the bourgeois is contextually appropriate for her argument. For my own research on the formation of identities within the virtual realm, Warner's (1990) concept of the prosthetic body being a blank slate is contextually appropriate. In the end, this departure of conceptual meaning within different contexts proves Coombe's (1998) point that there needs to be a concrete reality check for the abstractions of law.
1. In chapter two, Coombe (1998) discusses how prosocial interactions between celebrities and their multiple authors create ruptures within the dominant discourses surrounding the performativity of gender and sexuality. What other examples can we think of (beyond camp and pastiche) where individuals have reappropriated a celebrity as a means of rupturing gender and/or sexual norms within society?
2. Coombe (1998) pointed out that the laws surrounding the exclusive property rights of celebrities will create a stagnation for future generations of performers and artists. Specifically using Madonna as an example, Coombe (1998) details the ways in which Madonna as the performer is created from a bricolage of previous stars and icons that came before her. However, since Madonna has now copyrighted and trademarked every part of her image, future performers will be limited in how they can appropriate what was already appropriated by Madonna. My question however, is then how do performers like Lady Gaga, who amongst other images and icons, has drawn heavily from Madonna able to get away with her celebrity while other performers get sued?
Coombe, R. (1998). The cultural life of intellectual properties: Authorship, appropriation, and the law. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Warner, M. (1990). The letters of the republic: Publication and the public sphere in eighteenth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Warner, M. (1992). The mass public and the mass subject. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.