In 1941, the French author Pierre Menard wrote “truth, whose mother is history, [is the] rival of time, storehouse of deeds, witness for the past, example and counsel for the present, and warning for the future.” Menard, a contemporary of the Godfather of psychology, William James, wisely asserts that historical fact is not what happened, but what we believe to have happened.
But Pierre Menard is not a real person.
Jorge Luís Borges, the 20th-century Argentinian writer and thinker, created the character of Pierre Menard in one of his most thought-provoking short stories, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. The full Spanish text is available here and Andrew Hurley’s translation into English here.
The story, in the form of a book review, examines Pierre Menard’s new book Don Quixote. The book reviewer notes that Menard’s text is “almost infinitely richer” than Miguel Cervantes’ 1605 classic. The catch: the two books are verbally identical — the words are exactly the same.
Copyright and Remix Theory
The question Borges poses in Pierre Menard is whether two identical works can have distinct meanings. Answering this question is paramount to understanding the role of Copyright in a remixed, open-source world; in the opinion of Borges, a recontextualized work can be “almost infinitely richer” than the work that is copied.
Creativity, authorship, and the nature of ideas have been called into question with technological advances such as the computer, the mp3, and the internet. “Remix Theory” seeks to understand the questions and problems presented by these advances through a philosophic lens. Borges, true to his proleptic style, analyzed remix avant la lettre in at least two of his writings, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote and Kafka and his Precursors.
*This is an abbreviation of a term paper written for a seminar focused on the writings of Jorge Luis Borges . The full argument can be found in both English and Spanish on my website.
The Origin of Remix
The term “remix” is a relatively new word that arose with the evolution of recorded music. Eduardo Navas, author of Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling, notes that the usage of the term “remix” grew exponentially near the end of the 1980s.
The late ’80s witnessed the rise of hip-hop and DJs, with pioneering DJs like Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc beginning to play duplicate versions of an album simultaneously and moving the vinyl discs manually, creating the signature record-scratch sound. From there, the role of DJ continued to evolve as DJs began to play different songs at the same time, creating a new and unique experience. Since then, the use and reuse of recordings and samples in music have become the norm, especially in the hip-hop and rap genres.
Today, remix is a polemic topic that calls into question the nature of inspiration, art, and copyright.
Pierre Menard’s “Quixote” as a Remix
The narrator in Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, declares that Pierre Menard’s copy of Don Quixote is “almost infinitely richer” than the Don Quixote written by Miguel de Cervantes three centuries earlier. Menard has effectively produced a text identical to the classic book but with a completely new meaning. Therefore, Borges asserts that the value of a work lies beyond the work itself.
If the value of a work can change while its intrinsic elements remain unchanged, there must exist extrinsic elements that influence how a work is valued.
Eduardo Navas notes that “the fact that Menard reproduces Cervantes verbatim — not as a copyist but as an author — is a result of the contextual difference supported by changing tastes” (112, emphasis in original). Navas, then, attributes the extrinsic value to the context in which a work is produced.
Borges himself seems to agree with Navas’ analysis: in the essay A Note about (to) Bernard Shaw, Borges affirms that
“literature is not exhaustable, for the sufficient and simple reason that a single book is not. A book is not an incommunicable being: it is a relationship, it is an axle of innumerable relations. A piece of literature differs from another…less by the text than by the way it is read.
Thus, Borges maintains that literature, and by extension any creative work, has no intrinsic value and that the value of a work is based strictly in its relations and context. In the case of Pierre Menard, the work of Cervantes and the work of Menard exist in contexts so foreign to each other that it’s not possible that they be understood and valued equally; Miguel de Cervantes, the humble 16th-century Spaniard has nothing in common with Pierre Menard, the postindustrial, modernist Frenchman.
A creative work can be reduced to its parts: a work of literature broken down into the meaning of the individual words, a painting dissected into the individual brushstrokes. For the sake of continuity, we’ll stick with literature as the creative work we examine.
Umberto Eco and Semiotics
In its most basic form, a word is a symbol and the study of symbols is “semiotics.” The Italian philosopher Umberto Eco developed a semiotic theory that all symbols (or “codes”) exist in a web a meaning. Each individual has their own webs of meaning, constituted by the associations created over a lifetime of experience.
As an example, take the word “tree.” We likely have a similar concept of a large plant that has roots underground, some sort of trunk, and leaves at the top. However, a person from southern California may immediately associate the word “tree” with the tall, slender California Fan Palm; another from a Vermont may immediately associate “tree” with the coniferous Eastern White Pine. Even if I am explicit in saying “Eastern White Pine,” there may be some reader that built a treehouse in their backyard pine tree and whose relationship and associations with that type of tree are much more intimate than most.
An author, therefore, organizes symbols according to the patterns they have observed, but the interpretation of meaning ultimately corresponds to the reader. Hence, Pierre Menard, as an author and not a copyist, organized the same symbols that Cervantes used, but the web of meaning Menard is so vastly different from Cervantes’ web that, for the readers, the resulting work is completely new and unique.
The Role of the Author/Writer/Creator
If the meaning of any work is subject to interpretation, the role — and very existence — of the author is called into question. Sara Roger, in her book Borges and Kafka: Sons and Writers, proclaims that “it is the reader who gives a work its meaning, not the author” (5). Roger bases her declaration in the arguments of the New Critics, which included contemporaries of Borges such as T.S. Eliot, W.K. Wimsatt, and Monroe C. Beardsley.
Roland Barthes, another contemporary of Borges, contends in his essay The Death of the Author that a text becomes “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” Barthes sustains, like the New Critics, that art and literature should be disconnected from their creators. The multi-dimensional space that Barthes mentions coincides with the semiotic web proposed by Eco; each reader exists within their own semio-linguistic dimension.
Considering that the meaning of a text emerges from the reader and given that each reader perceives a distinct web of meaning, there cannot exist a truly original work. That is, there does not exist a single correct version of a work because all, within their web and environments, are unique and correct.
The multiplicity of interpretations and versions of a work is manifest in the story of Pierre Menard. Considering that Menard’s work is different from Cervantes’, the narrator concedes that he, as a reader, has created two distinct versions. In Borges and Artificial Intelligence, Ema Lapidot declares that Borges “maintains that a book is the product of the rewriting of an existing work merely by means of attaching new interpretations to the original words” (15). Therefore, according to Lapidot, Pierre Menard subjected Cervantes’ text to modern interpretations; Menard connected the symbols of the old manuscript to the contemporary web of meaning.
For the narrator in the story of Pierre Menard, the antiquated text of Cervantes has been resigned to a place on the semiotic web next to the conquistadores, the mystics, and Phillip II, subjects far-flung from modernity. On the other hand, Menard’s text couples the symbols (the words) of Don Quixote with relevant, contemporaneous figures such as the philosophers William James and Bertrand Russell. Hence, two identical texts with unique meanings can exist within a single semiotic web.
The biological phenomenon of the rhizome can further elucidate the possibility of two works consisting of the same symbols. The rhizome is a type of root that grows horizontally and can sprout independently. What’s more, the root can weave together with other rhizomes around it to become one. Examples of rhizomatic plants are bamboo, ginger, turmeric, hops ans asparagus.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari found inspiration in the rhizome in their work A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, in which the French philosophers elaborate on how ideas interconnect and decentralize like the rhizome (4–28).
In other words, ideas appear distinct like the individual stalks of bamboo, but beneath the surface exists a web of inseparable roots. Just as a shoot of bamboo does not stem from one single root, there is no single cause or impetus that explains or defines an idea.
Perla Sassón-Henry observes in Borges 2.0: From Text to Virtual Worlds that Umberto Eco incorporated Deleuze and Guattari’s theory in his work Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language by defining the semiotic web as a series of branches that try to interweave themselves but lack a center trunk (Sassón-Henry 40, Eco 81).
Borges, Kafka, and Rhizomes
Borges appears to agree with a rhizomatic approach to ideation. Borges writes in his Note about (to) Bernard Shaw that “a book is not an incommunicable being: it is a relationship, it is an axle of innumerable relations.” Similarly, an idea exists as a relation and an axle of relations that can be strengthened or weakened.
Framed in the context of an essay by Borges, Kafka and his Precursors, the ideas of three foreign authors — Zeno of Elea (5th century B.C.), Han Yu (China, 8–9th century A.D.), and Søren Kirkegaard (Denmark, 19th century A.D.) — exist as shoots of bamboo A, B, and C of the same rhizome, but separated by distances, as represented in Figure 1. Though they are connected, the contextual difference hinders the delineation of the connection.
When Franz Kafka dictates his ideas in the 20th century Bohemia, bamboo shoot K sprouts from the subterranean rhizomes in the middle of the other shoots, as represented in figure 2. The central shoot (K) serves as an axle to reinforce and clarify the connection between the periphery shoots (A, B, and C). Thus, “the heterogeneous pieces resemble Kafka [shoot K],” but “not all resemble each other” (Borges 395).
Now that the central shoot is apparent, according to Borges, shoots A, B, and C will be understood from the perspective of shoot K or, more accurately, from the perspective of the entire rhizome. Borges did not believe in a single source of inspiration, because it doesn’t exist, but rather believed in the rhizomatic connection of ideas.
Giving the Mic Back to the MC
As explained earlier, DJ’s recombine recordings of music (works) to create new experiences. The repetition of music in a context foreign to its initial recording locates the work in a new space inside the semiotic web of the listener.
What Pierre Menard did — repeat the words of Cervantes in a new context — is the same as what DJs do: remix.
Borges did not believe in a perfect work, but rather in a flexible work; he believed that works have the ability to inform and elucidate other works; he believed, as Umberto Eco explains, that “every performance explains [an idea] but does not exhaust it” (cited in Sassón-Henry 47, emphasis in original); he believed that repetition foments new connections and, consequently, new works (Navas 27–31). Borges, therefore was a literary Disk Jockey, a DJ of ideas and symbols.
Now, the unattributed remix of recordings has provoked extensive discussion regarding the role of plagiarism, copyright, royalties, and intellectual property. The legality of remix and the history of pertinent arguments is outside the scope of this essay, but the schools of thought can be summarized in two: those of the “copyleft” that support the free and decentralized sharing of ideas and materials, and those of the “copyright” that support the legal control of ideas and materials (see David Gunkel’s Of Remixology: Ethics and Aesthetics After Remix, xvii-xxi).**
According to the analysis of the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, there is no room for doubt that the Argentine writer would support the remixers of the “copyleft.” In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, Borges proves that an author can give a work a unique meaning by recontextualizing (remixing) it; in Kafka and his Precursors, Borges reaffirms that a work is not an immutable artifact but rather a collection where ideas allow for reasoning and connections (Sassón-Henry 39).
Jorge Luís Borges convincingly demonstrates that a contemporary work can change how its preceding works are understood. Borges also establishes that the value of a work is not intrinsic, but rather a product of its context; readers place works within their own semiotic webs where the meanings of those works develop rhizomatically. The thoughts that Borges expresses through his writings regarding inspiration, authorship, and the character of prove that he believed, as the narrator of Pierre Menard does, that a remix can be “infinitely richer” than the work that precedes it.
- *I wrote an article titled “Living Down Stream — How Streaming Threatens Culture” in 2018 highlighting some of the current copyright-related issues in music streaming. You can find the digital version here on Medium or a PDF of the print version on my website.
This article itself is a remix and recontextualization of the ideas found in these sources:
- Balderston, Daniel. 2000. Borges: realidades y simulacros. Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos.
- Ball, Jared. 2011. I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
- Borges, Jorge Luis. 2017. Borges Esencial. Rio de Mouro, Portugal: Penguin Random House Group Editorial.
- Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Shizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.
- Eco, Umberto. 1976. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- — . 1984. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. London: Macmillan.
- Eliot, T.S. 1982. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Perspecta 19: 36–42.
- Gunkel, David J. 2019. Of Remixology: Ethics and Aesthetics After Remix. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Haupt, Adam. 2008. Stealing Empire. Cape Town: HRSC Press.
- Lapidot, Ema. 1991. Borges and Artifical Intelligence: An Analysis in the Style of Pierre Menard. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.
- Lethem, Jonathan. 2007. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A plagiarism.” Harper’s Magazine, Feb: 59.
- Mualem, Shlomy. 2012. Borges and Plato: A Game with Shifting Mirrors. Frankfurt: Iberoamericana Vervuert.
- Navas, Eduardo. 2012. Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling. Wein: Springer.
- Roger, Sarah. 2017. Borges and Kafka: Sons and Writers. Oxford: Oxford UP.
- Sassón-Henry, Perla. 2007. Borges 2.0: From Text to Virtual Worlds. New York: Peter Lang.
- Taplin, Jonathan. 2017. Move Fast and Break Things. New York City: Little, Brown and Company.
- Timberg, Scott. 2015. Culture Crash. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.