Throughout “What Is A Copy?” Marcus Boon engages with the idea of mimesis and imitation principally by using Buddhist thought to critique Platonic ideas surrounding copying as well as, by association, the foundations of Western concepts of Intellectual Property and Copyright Law.

These concluding thoughts have been generated from reading and reflecting on the chapter and form genuine problems with which I am wrestling.

Boon outlines how complex the idea of copying has become, especially in the light of mass production, using LOUIS VUITTON bags as his ongoing example. This area is fraught with legal and ethical complexity, further complicated by LOUIS VUITTON themselves, who employed an artist – Takashi Murakami – to collaborate in designing their bags. Boon describes at the outset of the chapter an exhibition in which Murakami displayed authentic LOUIS VUITTON bags on fake market stalls in a museum, problematizing, or at least highlighting the relation between the LOUIS VUITTON product and the gray and the black market in lookalikes.

Louis Vuitton x Takashi Murakami Speedy

A LOUIS VUITTON bag exists first as an idea and then, when manufactured, as an approximation of that idea.

Murakami also uses  LOUIS VUITTON motifs and logos in his artworks. To recap the classical view on copying and mimesis: Plato saw the world as a dim reflection of truth. That truth is located in the ‘ideal.’ The perfect circle exists only as an idea, and all representations of the circle are crude and approximate. Similarly, the Platonic argument runs thus: a Louis Vuitton bag exists first as an idea and then, when manufactured, as an approximation of that idea. Aristotle referred to the ‘ideal’ as ‘essence,’ which is the phrase that Boon uses. Essence, according to Aristotle, gives shape and purpose to matter. All LOUIS VUITTON bags, Plato and Aristotle, argue, contain only echoes or traces of that Ideal.

“In Plato’s Republic, Socrates presents the argument that everything in this world is an imitation because it is an echo or reproduction of an idea that exists beyond the realm of sensible forms. A LOUIS VUITTON bag is the imitation of an idea, in leather and other materials, while a photograph of such a bag is an imitation of an imitation.”

A good deal of Essence ought to be carried by the painstakingly similar bootleg copies of the bags.

Heidegger, Boon proposes, engages with outward appearance, defining copying as “presenting and producing something in a manner which is typical of something else.” If Essence is bound up in the appearance of things, then a good deal of Essence ought to be carried by the painstakingly similar bootleg copies of the bags.

As an aside, we ought to care to notice the language on display here: appear, like, reproduction, imitation, and so on. The language of mimesis is eloquent and evasive, speaking of the contingencies and difficulties bound into the very act of copying and its rationale, especially concerning the legal doublespeak on display when talking of “authentically original imitations of the real originals!”.

But what, Boon argues, if there is no Essence, no Ideal? Before engaging fully with Oriental thought, Boon also mentions Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and Baudrillard’s work. These thinkers are passed over swiftly as Boon wants to focus on non-Western thought traditions, but they have a place here as they each in their own way critique the classical views of the Ideal and Essence. Each of these thinkers begins to chip away at the idea or importance of the Essence, but Boon takes the radical step of saying “if we can agree that there are no Platonic essences…” and then seeks to argue the case.

“…if objects did have essences, there could be no copying of them, since that which one would make the copy out of would continue to have its Essence, and could have only this Essence, rather than that Essence which is implied by the transformed outward appearance that would make it a copy. Similarly, suppose the Essence of a thing was truly fixed. In that case, it could not be transported to the copy, and imitation, even as a degradation of the original, would not be possible.

Ask the Platonist where one can find the ideal form which supposedly constitutes the real LOUIS VUITTON bag,

“[This] … response to the Platonic doctrine of the idea would be to ask the Platonist where one can find the ideal form which supposedly constitutes the real Louis Vuitton bag, and, through the systematic negation of all the possibilities, to demonstrate that it has no existence.

We can find nothing but the bags that are around us, some of which we call and designate “LOUIS VUITTON bags.” This designation is always necessarily a relative one. The LOUIS VUITTON bag does not know it is a LOUIS VUITTON bag, even if it has “LV” inscribed on it. To a person from the tenth century, to a dog, or to a bacterium, the designation “LOUIS VUITTON bag” would be meaningless, as far we know. There is no essence to the bag which guarantees that it is recognizable as such.”

So, the idea begins to seem less and less tenable to Boon. Despite the vast number of cues displayed by a LOUIS VUITTON bag – logo, quality of material, artistry, and so on, the status of ‘original’ is always in doubt. Imitations are, according to Boon and others, indistinguishable from the ‘originals.’

If the idea of essence-less is pursued we arrive eventually at a paradox, “If things lack fundamental natures, it turns out that they all have the same nature, that is, emptiness, and hence both have and lack that very nature.”.

Boon calls this ‘non-duality’: “difference and sameness are neither different nor the same; and what is, […] is emptiness itself.” The final section of the chapter revolves around Michael Taussig’s idea of ‘contagion.’ That is, a law of contact:

Things that have been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. And once again, we are back in the world of the LOUIS VUITTON bag, by way of an advertising image of Uma Thurman touching a VUITTON bag and looking directly at us. She has touched it with her celebrity and, therefore, runs the commercial logic, we desire. Luckily, they make more than one of these things, and we can, in theory, acquire one with a sense of connection and celebrity.

All LOUIS VUITTON bags are merely copies, as only the Ideal or Essence is perfect.

If the classical view of mimesis is correct, surely all LOUIS VUITTON bags are merely copies, as only the Ideal or Essence is perfect. As discussed above, all bags in the real world are imperfect copies, including the ‘originals’ and ‘imitations.’ No doubt LOUIS VUITTON would take issue with this stance as they argue – through their advertising – that their bags, the ones made in their factories and sold through their shops are, to steal a phrase ‘the real thing.’ The advert quoted by Boon at the head of the chapter relies on this position. So are LOUIS VUITTON drawing down the Essence into their products, thus marginalizing the fakes as, well, fake?
Is Essence the foundation of our copyright law? What happens to that moral force if there is no Essence?

Seeing the Velvet Underground at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in 1966 is one thing, but seeing them at the NEC in the nineties is surely different, even if it’s the same four people. However, four unknown musicians faithfully replicating the Velvet’s 1966 performance in a club in New York in the 1990s ought to, instinctively, be rejected (or embraced), as fake. Where, then, is any Essence located? If there is any Essence in relation to objects or events, then perhaps it comes from an audience. Do we project, contingent upon knowledge, interest, and so on, an essence?

How does this discussion of Essence (and its lack, which seems so plausible) fit in with art practice, which continues to privilege the touch (contagion), of the maker, even if we know that historically that has a dubious basis?

Boon’s summary of the various arguments against any Essence (that has any clout), seems plausible. Still, I am struck that in a few days, I am going to Paris, and I plan to visit the Louvre to see paintings and sculptures, many of which I have seen in reproduction many times. I may not intellectually believe in Essence, but I act and spend as if I do. What’s going on?

Can the idea of Essence or its non-existence be applied outside the world of objects and events? Can we extend any of these arguments into relationships, politics, and so on?

Boon is an Associate Professor of English at York University, Toronto. “In Praise Of Copying” was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.