Laurie Penny: The Digital Economy Bill threatens creativity

In defence of the download.

Framing the greatest innovation in human communications since the printing press as an enemy of cultural progress was always going to be a tough sell for the music industry. Public rhetoric around the Digital Economy Bill has focused on "protecting artists" from the evils of free filesharing, which is supposed to plunge us into a new cultural ice age in exactly the same way that home taping killed music. But as the Bill enters its final stages of being rushed through parliament, young artists and innovators are refusing to buy the orthodoxy of copyright protection -and many are fighting back.

Across the country, cottage music agencies and artistic projects are incorporating free filesharing into their business models, in defiance of the commercial hegemony that the Digital Economy Bill seeks to protect. Simon and Julia Indelicate, of cult folk-punk group The Indelicates, set up Corporate Records to "reflect and delight in the post-internet music market". "We want our data to flow freely," said Simon. "It's not just filesharing that's bringing down the music industry, it's the entire abundant sea of music and art that's legally available online. The industry is going to fail whatever happens - so we're focusing on what we can build in its place."

The hostility of the imploding publishing and music industries to innovative young talent has led many emerging artists to find new outlets for their energies. "If I didn't have to work in a nursing home to support myself, I'd be less tired, but I wouldn't be any less creative or productive," says Julia Indelicate. "People who say they'll stop making music if they don't get paid, clearly care more about the money than the music, so they should probably stop anyway."

For young creatives, the notion of spending years networking in order to get signed by an agent is increasingly outdated, as self-publishing becomes ever more rewarding. "As a teenager, getting published seemed an impossible dream," said Deirdre Ruane, author of the popular blog Wasted Epiphanies. "Part of me is astonished that I can now post comic strips and watch hits come in from all over the world -- all of it enabled by free filesharing. What emerging artists need is eyes on their stuff, and anything that puts more obstacles in the way of that process stifles creativity."

The orthodoxy of signing a corporate deal does retain some hold over the imagination of young artists. Musicologist and blogger Adam Harper, 23, explains that "it's a rite of passage for young male teenagers to start rock bands, and it would be rare to find one of these bands, however unambitious, who harboured no trace of the fantasy of stardom and commercial success that hovers over every 'unsigned' band. Even the popular currency of the phrase 'unsigned bands' is a reflection of this teleological fantasy of music-making."

That fantasy, however, is fading. When the means of producing and distributing high-quality media from scratch can be installed in your bedroom for the cost of a trip to Skegness, why would a young artist sign over their creative and financial freedom to a middle-aged person who doesn't understand the internet? "We've sold more stuff through filesharing than we would have if we hadn't been able to spread the news about our work," says Julia Indelicate. "We used to be signed to a record company, but we ended up with less money, less control and worse publicity. Now we're unsigned, we're still touring, and the record label has folded."

The moral panic associated with free filesharing portrays young producers and consumers of culture as a ghastly mob of "pirates", an uncouth barbarian horde rampaging through the pristine edifices of the bourgeois artistic establishment. That panic is understandable: the creative vision of the internet generation, fully realised, would shake our understanding of how culture is owned and consumed to its very foundations. Projects such as Corporate Records and Records on Ribs make a glorious mockery of attempts to manufacture cultural scarcity in order to maximise profit, and copyright piracy continues despite any number of sinister adverts.

Media princes such as Mandelson's confidante, David Geffen - a man so vain that that song may actually have been about him - are right to be afraid. The young people protesting in Westminster this week are protecting more than their right to stream the new series of Gossip Girl; they are protecting an entire cultural paradigm, one in which the process of recommending, sampling and downloading nuggets of media and information is deeply ingrained. For young creatives who have grown up online, the notion of restricting internet access for any reason provokes a just and visceral horror -- and they will not accept antique copyright laws without a fight.

Laurie Penny is a freelance journalist and blogger. She blogs at Penny Red.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism