New Adventures in Lo-Fi: Bootleg Histories in Lucas Hilderbrand’s “Inherent Vice”

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Scholars in recent years have studied a variety of different media to challenge the ever-present notion of technological determinism, identifying ways that listeners, readers, and viewers shape both the technologies of communication and the creative expression conveyed by them.  Much attention has focused on the possibilities of digital media, such as personal computers and the Internet, to open up new arenas for individual participation through blogs, file-sharing, and online video.  Some studies, such as Lisa Gitelman’s work on the early phonograph, have searched for the origins of a participatory media culture beyond the very recent past; however, much remains to be said about the ways individuals and groups put media to their own ends before the days when one could replicate cultural works simply by hitting “send” or “upload” on a computer screen.[i]

Lucas Hilderbrand is one scholar who has looked beyond the Internet era to uncover a whole subculture of copying, sharing, and individual expression in the earlier medium of videotape.  His new book, Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, builds on the growing literature of new media, intellectual property, and cultural history to provide an incisive, and at times nostalgic, look at the ways changing technology has prompted both new modes of expression and perception, as well as new conflicts over access and ownership.  The result is a refreshing and suggestive study not just of bootleg video, but of material culture in the late twentieth century United States more broadly.

inherent vice book cover

The book is organized into five chapters, interspersed with cursory passages called “video clips,” which provide readers a fleeting glimpse into particular instances of bootlegging.  Though inessential to the overall narrative, these sections add texture and specificity to the author’s analysis by considering how bootleg video operates in ordinary contexts, from a Korean video store in Irvine to a convention of sci-fi and horror aficionados in New York.  The individual chapters are thematic and episodic, the first two dealing with the technological and social origins of home video and copyright debates in the courts and Congress.  Subsequent chapters touch on the founding of Vanderbilt University’s Television News Archive, Todd Haynes’s suppressed satire of the Carpenters, Superstar, and “video letters” that have circulated among feminists since the 1970s, particularly the Joanie 4 Jackie project begun by artist Miranda July in 1995.   Throughout, Hilderbrand shows how video created the possibility of access to forms of media that were either ephemeral (news and commercials) or scarce (out-of-print or banned films).

While access matters to those who might not want their creations reproduced, such as television networks or politicians, as well as to those seeking as broad a scope of content as possible, such as viewers who seek to rediscover a cultural moment captured on videotape or YouTube, Hilderbrand remains mindful of the complexity of “access” as a social good.  Intriguingly, he suggests that the legitimate desire for access to information might have been transformed into a sense of “entitlement” to information with the rise of the Internet – the conviction that any clip should be available to anyone at any time, well captured in the fashionable mantra that “information wants to be free.”

Inherent Vice does not evince an all-out commitment to free culture, and the author prefers to focus on bootlegging for personal, non-profit uses.  This distinction between noncommercial bootlegging and profit-driven piracy recalls the work of other proponents of the bootleg, such as Lee Marshall, but historical evidence shows how the lines between the two practices have often been blurry at best.[ii]  Understandably, many scholars wish to carve out a defensible exception to claims of ownership for practices that serve the interest of preservation and access to information.  However, a trip through the ethnic video shops discussed by Hilderbrand reveals that bootleg media easily intermixes the personal and the public, preservation and profit – in other words, “bootleg” and “pirate” are often not as different or separate as some theorists suggest.

Matters of terminology notwithstanding, Inherent Vice offers a welcome reorientation of the literature on intellectual property.  Scholars such as Lawrence Lessig and Siva Vaidhyanathan have documented how the interests of rights-owners successfully trumped the prerogatives of consumers and the public domain in the late twentieth century.[iii]  In contrast, Hilderbrand complicates the prevailing narrative of stronger and more restrictive copyright law by highlighting a pivotal case in which the rights of users triumphed: the 1984 Sony v. Universal decision, in which the Supreme Court concluded that home taping of television for personal use did not infringe copyright.  While Hilderbrand is well aware of the trend toward restrictive regulation that emerged alongside digital media, he also acknowledges the fact that American jurisprudence has not moved entirely in one direction over the last thirty years.  Both the Congressional endorsement of “fair use” in the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Court’s acceptance of home taping illustrate a concern for the broader public interest, cutting against the trend toward bolstering property rights that has resulted in stiffer penalties for infringement and a more expansive concept of intellectual property.

cassette culture

Hilderbrand also makes a valuable contribution to the study of media as material culture.  Anthropologists and musicologists have brought their methods to bear on the physical trappings of piracy, as Peter Manuel did when he scrutinized the packaging and aural texture of Indian bootlegs in his 1993 classic Cassette Culture.[iv]  Of particular relevance is Brian Larkin’s recent work on video in Nigeria, in which the anthropologist proposed that the texture and style of bootleg tapes, inscribed through generation after generation of reproduction, amounted to a distinctive aesthetic.[v]  This approach to the bootleg as a cultural form has received too little attention in the United States, and Inherent Vice helps bring a perspective pioneered in studies abroad to bear on American popular culture.

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The only thing less appealing would be a Stingray sex tape (“What you gon’ do brother?!”)

Hilderbrand’s own narrative fizzes with the language of noise and distortion, riddled with clicks and pops and glitches.   The fuzziness of a historic video like Abraham Zapruder’s film of the JFK assassination, Hilderbrand suggests, is not just a matter of noise interfering in what should be a clear picture – it is, rather, essential to our experience of the historical moment and the document itself.  The author finds a similar aesthetic in amateur porn and celebrity sex tapes, citing a critic who described “the harshest reds… strained to a porn-zine labial pink, the blues and blacks dulled to a bad-meat gray… in some liquid video purgatory.” (p. 65)  Indeed, one of the most striking qualities of this book is its refusal to present images in anything resembling the high-quality resolution strived for by nearly all publishers.  The bootleg images of Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, Richard Nixon, and Barbie appear in all their blurry glory, retaining the “surface haze of worn out video” that defined their perception by countless viewers (p. 233).

In this regard, bootlegs raise interesting questions about uniformity and creativity within the limits of twentieth century America’s mass culture.  Hilderbrand is interested in the ontology of video, in the way that individual reproduction changes what media mean for listeners and viewers in the first place.  Cultural goods that were initially mass produced (records and movies) or ephemeral (television) became replicable and subject to alteration by audiences.  Hilderbrand recognizes that bootleg video introduces a wrinkle to Walter Benjamin’s distinction between mass produced and unique artworks, as each pirated copy can have its own characteristics.  It is not a conflict between aura and access, but the generation of a new and different kind of aura.  The noise on an overused videotape shows that it is not just one copy among thousands or millions, but a particular tape, bearing the marks of the specific time and place where it was experienced and enjoyed.  The bootleg becomes both a historical and personal artifact.

Despite the book’s estimable accomplishments, Hilderbrand could have gone further by considering why reproductive technologies (whether audio and video tape or online file-sharing) became so ubiquitous in the late twentieth century, such that they triggered a restrictive shift in the nature of United States copyright.  If consumer desire for copying technology drove the popularity of both video recorders and personal taping, then why did tools for capturing sound and image not develop sooner?  And why did technologies of home recording, such as wax cylinders in the 1900s or disk-cutting machines in the 1930s, not succeed where compact cassettes and VHS fared better?  Does this reflect a change in consumer desires, the modalities of different technologies, or some other factor?  Inherent Vices edges close to addressing these broader historical questions, but does not offer a comprehensive answer.

Perhaps the renewed interest among consumers for home recording resulted from the multiplication of entertainment sources that could be recorded and copied, from radio and television to cable and the Internet.  There was no radio from which to tape songs in the heyday of the wax cylinder, and home recording was more difficult, though not impossible, in the age of the shellac and vinyl disc.  Implicitly, Hilderbrand positions video as part of an expanding range of media options in the late twentieth century, from pay television to the unprecedented market for pornography.  Drawing out how video’s emergence related to these other channels of communication might have strengthened the book’s analysis.

In fact, one of the book’s most compelling chapters lays out a clear example of the social and technological forces that drove the development of video: the genesis of the Television News Archive at Vanderbilt University.  Hilderbrand recounts how a conservative insurance salesman, Paul Simpson, conceived the idea of a project that would document the news broadcasts of the major television networks, in order to uncover any traces of liberal bias in the reporting of current events.  Beginning in 1968, Simpson worked tirelessly to devise a technologically feasible and legally sound way to create a repository of television news.  His efforts led to a partnership with Vanderbilt University and a court battle with CBS News, which claimed that the recording project infringed the copyright for its news programs.  Hilderbrand lucidly sketches the tortuous legal logic that CBS’s lawyers pursued to assert this property rights claim; after all, US copyright had always required expressions to be “fixed” in a physical form to earn protection, and it was far from clear that an ephemeral, live broadcast fit this requirement.

The story of the Vanderbilt archive crystallizes several themes that are vital for the arguments made in Inherent Vice.  Because of its purpose of informing the public, news provided the ideal grounds for sorting out questions of access to information.  The public interest was at stake if ordinary citizens were denied an opportunity to scrutinize the historical record of what Walter Cronkite said on a given night, or how CBS chose to frame the events of the day.  This chapter also reveals how social and political imperatives defined the contours of technology.  As Hilderbrand notes, “Simpson’s pilot operation had to explore and invent off-air taping and video preservation procedures as the project develop” (p. 121).  With video technology still in a formative state, the insurance man needed the help of the Ampex Corporation and staff at Vanderbilt to create a workable system for recording the night’s news.  This story is most crucial because it reveals how efforts at documentation and novel technology emerged from a particular social context – the ferment of the late 1960s, when Americans of liberal and conservative stripes alike were questioning major institutions, from the White House to the New York-based news media.  Finally, the chapter demonstrates that the cause of access to information is not the monopoly of liberals alone, but one that transcends partisan divisions.

In stylistic terms, the author has a penchant for speaking in the first person and inserting personal anecdotes where they are not necessary for his larger argument.  The mention of a late-night babysitting session that was interrupted by the sounds of sexual climax emanating from a scrambled Playboy Channel seems particularly ill-advised.  Indeed, the book is less convincing when the author attempts to highlight the erotic elements of video as a medium.  While Hildebrand cites a few examples of a sexualized discourse around video, such as a comparison between rental shopping and cruising for a sex partner, these characterizations seem scattered and idiosyncratic rather than essential to many people’s experience with the technology (p. 33).  The seamy side of video partly reflected its circulation through personal and underground networks of change – part of a broader expansion of channels of media outside of the mainstream of broadcast television and Hollywood blockbusters.  Whether “bootleg” or not, many of these media possessed an aura of illegality – like the ultraviolent and highly sexual cable programming depicted in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.  Indeed, a reference to the 1983 cult film might have offered one way to illustrate the association of new media, including video, with both sexuality and criminality.

Minor criticisms aside, Inherent Vice is a lively and perceptive look at the legal and social history of videotape, with an eye toward excavating the cultural antecedents of today’s “user-generated” media.  It would be well suited for courses on media studies and legal or cultural history, and would interest anyone with a curiosity about the folk culture of entertainment and technology in the late twentieth century United States.

References

[i] Lisa Gitelman, “How Users Define New Media: A History of the Amusement Phonograph,” in Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, ed. David Thorburn, Henry Jenkins and Brad Seawell (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 61-79.

[ii] Lee Marshall, Bootlegging: Romanticism and Copyright in the Music Industry (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2005).

[iii] Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (New York: Random House, 2001); Siva Vaidhyanathan, Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity (New York: New York University Press, 2001).

[iv] Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[v] Brian Larkin, “Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy,” Public Culture 16 (2004): 289-314.

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