“The Internet at its Utopian Best”: A Fabulous Feature on The Public Domain Review in the TLS

November 4, 2021

We have a lovely feature on the project penned by Frances Wilson in this week's Times Literary Supplement. She generously describes The Public Domain Review as “the internet at its utopian best" and “a Borgesian Library of Babel ... a labyrinth to get lost in.”

Here's a few more choice excerpts:

We talk about works “falling” out of copyright as though they were being hurled from Paradise into what the poet Alfred de Vigny described as “the sinkhole of public domain”, but Green and Gray see the afterlife of words and images as an ascent: “it is only a matter of time before every work – every opera, fresco, novella, tapestry, napkin scribble and lecture note – gracefully ascends into the big commons in the sky”. This is the internet at its utopian best: “a frictionless world” in which evidence of the imagination floats around in the empyrean “without cost, without registration, and without restrictive conditions on their use”.
You will not find in the journal orthodox material from official histories. What you will find instead is an oubliette of forgotten knowledge returned to us in a new form, making the Review a form of cultural unconscious.
“Wondrous” and “taxonomical” are at the heart of the Public Domain Review. Sir Francis Bacon described wonder as “broken knowledge”, which perfectly captures the spirit of this particular wonderland, in which what looks like sublime disorder is in fact a Borgesian taxonomy of impossibilities. In Other Inquisitions: 1937–1952, Borges refers to “a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’”, in which animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies. The taxonomies of the Public Domain Review have a similar “power of enchantment” (the term is used by Foucault in The Order of Things).

Head over to the TLS website to read the piece in its entirety.