Monday, March 20, 2006

Recoding and audience interests in stability

I’m particularly interested in the claim that audiences (and copyright owners) have an interest in preserving the singular meaning of a work or, usually, a character. Broad fair use rights to “recode,” some argue, threaten that interest in stability. I disagree that works have stable meanings across time and audiences in the first place, though there are meanings that are relatively consistent within interpretive communities. Moreover, as I’ve said, I don’t think instability is really a problem, since canonical versions tend to survive recoding quite well, without losing their status as canon – Dracula, Santa, Hamlet, etc. But, of course, the plural of anecdote is not data. So I propose a theoretical justification for my stance: the prototype.

As George Lakoff explained in his wonderful and wonderfully-titled book, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, humans tend to think in categories. And one important feature of a category is that it has a prototype. A prototype is the thing-iest thing in the category; even if other category members fit the formal definitions, they aren’t as readily called to mind – and things can be members of the category even if they lack one or more aspects of the prototype, which is what makes categories fuzzy yet bounded. For Americans, apples and bananas are prototypical fruits; kiwis aren’t, even though they readily qualify.

The canonical version of a character or situation, I propose, is the prototype. Just as kiwis don’t make it any harder to recognize apples as “fruit,” reworkings of canon don’t make it any harder to recognize canon. They may change preferences – how are you going to keep the kid on the apple farm once he’s tasted kiwis? – but that’s different. As I said at the Cultural Environmentalism conference, forking a story isn’t the same as forking code; humans can run multiple versions.

It is possible for a sufficiently powerful reworking to seize the position of prototype – Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes to mind. Or the prototype could be a distillation of attributes of multiple versions; what are the defining features of your Dracula? Your Batman? But the existence of prototypes in multi-member categories, as a consistent part of cognition, helps explain why reworkings are not destructive of what stable meaning exists in a canonical version.


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