Issue 55, December 2011. See the entire magazine online here
By Sam Jacob
Plutarch, writing in 75 AD, describes the conundrum of Theseus’s boat. The Greek hero’s boat had been preserved as a memorial in an ocean-ready state by the Athenian citizens. Over time it began to rot, and its planks were replaced one by one until none of the original boat remained. Yet the boat was still there. This, Plutarch suggests, is a philosophical problem: is the boat still Theseus’s boat? Or is it an entirely new ship?
We are more likely to recognise this conundrum as the Sugababes paradox. The Sugababes were formed in 1998 by Siobhán Donaghy, Mutya Buena and Keisha Buchanan. But one by one they left, till by September 2009 none of the founders remained in the band; each had been replaced by another member, just like the planks of Theseus’s boat.
John Locke’s sock (a conundrum proposed by the philosopher as to the status of a sock that had been entirely redarned) and George Washington’s axe (an apocryphal story in which the head and shaft of the great man’s axe were both replaced) are further examples of the same phenomenon.
But as a further twist to this we might also wonder what happens if the parts that had been replaced in one of these objects were then put back together to make a second object. This is the philosophical conundrum that we face if we want to see the ‘real’ Temptations. Originally formed in Detroit in 1960, the Temptations are still going strong. But over the decades the band’s lineup has changed again and again, to the point where its original members are dispersed among a galaxy of Temptation versions, many of which often feature more of the original Temptations than the official band’s current lineup. Which, then, is the most authentic version of the Temptations? Is it the group named the Temptations, or is it one of these: Dennis Edwards and the Temptations Revue, Damon Harris and the Temptations Revue, Glenn Leonard and the Temptations Experience, Damon Harris and the Temptations Tribute, Glenn Leonard’s Temptations Revue, Richard Street’s Temptations, Legendary Lead Singers of the Temptations, the Temptations Reunion Show? Maybe there is no real Temptations any more, only versions of varying authenticity.
This question might remain one of academic interest – does it matter, after all, when the boat still floats, the axe still chops and some form of the Temptations still belts out Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today) (1970)? Yet we also know that these are questions that go to the heart of culture: of authorship and originality, of ownership and of the question as to where authenticity is located.
Take the case of Mutya Buena, who recently won a court case giving her ownership of the name Sugababes. Not the name of the group, however. Instead, according to reports of the ruling, she now owns the Sugababes name in relation to ‘paper, cardboard and goods…; namely stationery, paper gift wrap and paper gift wrapping ribbons’. Does that mean the only ‘authentic’ Sugababes product is not music or performance, but stationery? Or does the ‘idea’ of the Sugababes supersede both music and merchandising?
Among other aims, laws of intellectual property attempt to codify authenticity by fixing ownership and preventing unauthorised copies and fakes from undermining the significance (and value) of the original. Their description of objects as intellectual products echoes Plutarch’s problem of the description of the object – suggesting that the essence of an object might not be held within its materiality but in its conception.
While classical philosophy allows this problem to remain unsolved, intellectual property laws cannot. The fracturing of the Sugababes into separate instances of a stationery-producing entity and a recording-and-performance entity is just a small instance of the complexity of ownership and authenticity issues that surround almost everything around us. Take the iPhone. Behind its quiet formal resolution and intuitive interface is a raging storm of lawsuits and counterfilings as vicious and contested as a Temptations reunion. Its substance is a patchwork of copyrights and patents, and multiple manufacturers that can be swapped in and out. Just as Theseus’s boat could remain constant as an idea, regardless of its material substance, the contemporary technological object exists first as an idea almost regardless of its multiple and shifting components.
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