For Powe, it's "the hyperintensity of attention" brought about by high-speed electronic communications that's contributed to the particular shocks of the Martel-Scliar and Potter-Grotter episodes. "Art is still produced in solitude," he said, but it's consumed within a vast electronically linked universe "where every flaw, every fault, every crack is amplified to the nth degree."
The Internet, satellite television, e-mail, fax machines -- they all mark a sort of "retrieval of the collectivity of meaning," whereby a writer's work or life or influences, for example, have the potential to be excavated and mulled over by a virtual community of electronic Talmudic "scholars" from Chile to Madagascar to Canada.
Ezra Pound used to tell aspiring writers to "acknowledge your sources in your work -- or make sure you cover your tracks," Powe observed. The Web would seem to have made the last part of that advice an impossibility and the first a necessity.
Powe sees our current age as being roughly analogous, in the cultural sphere, to the early 20th century when the world was attempting to grasp the sundry audacities of Freud, Einstein, the Wright brothers and Virginia Woolf. "The really audacious explosions for us are yet to come."
The sheer flood of stuff that the technological age has produced has been frustratingly difficult to assimilate. Indeed, the nihilism and extreme subjectivity that some have attributed to postmodernism could be construed as a kind of revenge of the resentful. "For some, there's this feeling that we're in an afterburn, that there's this late-coming" to the great, intimidating cultural feast laid out by previous generations of creators and their apologists, he said.
One of the most egregious manifestations of this feeling of fin-de-siècle exhaustion occurred in 1998 with the release of the Gus Van Sant movie, Psycho.It wasn't so much an update of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film of the same name as a combination homage/recreation/plagiarism of the Hitchcock classic, in which Van Sant matched Hitch shot-for-original shot, image-for-image, violin shriek-for-violin shriek.
Yet while Van Sant's Psycho might be seen as a kind of end-game in the appropriation dance, it doesn't necessarily invalidate the famous aphorism by Igor Stravinsky -- or was it T.S. Eliot? Oscar Wilde? Milli Vanilli? -- that "lesser artists borrow; great artists steal."
In fact, Powe and others like him think we need "more theft," and better theft, in the cultural marketplace, not less. Bad theft would perhaps be Dimitri Yemetz's Tanya Grotter and the Magic Double Bass and Tanya Grotter and the Disappearing Floor -- works, in other words, that would seem to hew too slavishly to their primary source. At the same time, Yemetz's books have not been translated into English, so for most of us his defence that they're not J.K. Rowling ripoffs but "alternative parodies with roots in Russian folklore" is an untested (but tantalizing) thesis.
An example of a good theft, Canadian-style, would be Margaret Atwood's award-winning 1996 novel Alias Grace, the fictionalized tale of a real-life 19th-century incarcerated murderess whose memory is being probed by a pre-Freudian doctor. "Atwood's appropriating everything she can find into that book," Powe commented. "As ever, it still comes down to how the individual twists what he or she reads."