On Creative Destruction
Free market enthusiasts like to tout the idea of “creative destruction,” the broad means by which, it is theorized, companies and ideas that are old or weak will fall to the wayside and new and better ideas will take their place.* In practice this idea falls down all the time, but at the moment I’m more interested in its positive phoenix-like connotations: from the ashes will arise something new. Something better.
The act of trashing books gets a bad rap – and deservedly so, I’m not here to defend it. When Bloomberg ordered the NYPD to clear Zucotti Park on November 15, one of the many casualties was the OWSLibrary. At a press conference on November 23rd, the extent of the damage was made palpable. There was a lot of talk discussion of Nazi book-burnings and of censorship and Mayor Bloomberg’s press office got on the spin job in short order (one story here). The mere fact that it was books destroyed seemed to rile many people up even more than the eviction itself, as though they expected the physical confrontation, not the more symbolic attack.
In the meantime, on March 23, an entirely different kind of destruction of words took place in Edinburgh, Scotland, when the staff of the Scottish Poetry Society discovered a kind of origami baobab tree, left anonymously and crafted out of a book.
Click here for as full a story as I know on the sculptures.
Obviously there are grand differences. In New York, it was a governmental institution (the NYPD) that destroyed the books; in Edinburgh it was a single person. In New York, it was at best careless disregard for books (and at worst, willful destruction); in Edinburgh, it was clearly an act of love.
But in both cases, the books were damaged. You could argue that the OWS Library books were, while damaged, probably more legible in their aftermath than what happened in Edinburgh. You could argue that the Edinburgh case was one of transformation – which would be true (from one form of art – literary – to another – visual), but the destruction of the original was necessary to the creation of the second.
The anonymous artist in Scotland is not nearly the only one to practice such work, either. Over on Etsy.com, Michelle Peppard sells crafted objects under the nom de guerre “bibliocide,” creating matte frame for photographs and origami flowers out of sheet music, hymnal, atlases, and other books.
Austin Kleon creates poetry and the odd horoscope from “newspaper blackouts.”
Obviously, intent matters. We celebrate many transformations; we abhor censorship, if for no other reason than for self-interest.
Obviously, scale matters. Newspapers are mass produced. Many books are mass produced. I suspect we’d feel a little different about Austin Kleon if he practiced his craft on a first edition William Faulkner.
The books at OWS Library were not, despite what everyone might say, irreplaceable. They were copies – the problem that Walter Benjamin identified, that these things were reproducible. If anything was irreplaceable, it was not the books, it was the collection of books, the library itself. If the catalog survived, though, even that could be recovered. Then again, every recovery would always be the second thing, the reproduced thing.
What was lost in the OWS Library was not books alone, but the first library and what it stood for: culture, the free exchange of ideas. The library was symbolic just as the occupation of Zucotti Park was symbolic. What Bloomberg hoped, I suspect, and what the other mayors around the country hoped, was that by eliminating the symbol, they would eliminate the rallying point.
That could work, and even today after the first day of action of “Occupy Our Homes,” the movement to forestall foreclosures, there is a very real possibility that the occupiers will simply get tired and go home. Winter is coming, after all.
The risk that the mayors run, though, is that the tree of the free market of ideas is bearing fruit and that in the destruction of the occupations new and more effective tactics will arise.
*Wikipedia notes that creative destruction is originally a Marxist term (which on its own is hilarious). I’m using it here in the Schumpeterian sense. (The minute I saw Joseph Schumpeter’s name, I knew I wanted to adjectivize it).