Paul Maliszewski | Essays

Taking Things Seriously XI


Whatever needed doing at the mortgage company, I did, particularly if nobody else wanted to be bothered. Since I didn't have my own desk, I floated around, occupying whatever space was handy and empty. This was in the early 1990s, in Pittsburgh. The mad dash to refinance home mortgages had begun to cool. Whole suites were deserted, reminders of a time in the not-too-distant past when the company enjoyed more bullish days.

I searched every desk I sat at not only to fill the periodic lulls but also out of curiosity, to find pieces of other lives, workers before my time. One slow day, while pawing through an abandoned desk, I discovered this rubber stamp and knew immediately that I had to make it mine. Certified True Copy. How strange, I thought, and funny. How could a copy of something ever really be true?

My discovery was luck made manifest. I had recently started writing a story about Copy Copy, a fictional copy shop where a clerk named Tom Again worked the nightshift. Tom dreamed up grand-sounding theories like the Law of Copies, which holds, not originally, that life is but one long and steady decline. An original loses something when copied, Tom posited. A copy of that copy loses a bit more. The law of copies, Tom argued, was the dark twin of the myth of progress. He had ideas, as I had ideas then. And he was stuck, much as I was stuck. I took the stamp, thinking, I'll incorporate this into my work. I'll use it. In a moment of misplaced optimism, I even thought it might help me finish the story, like some magic talisman.

It didn't work. At least not as I hoped. I quit the job, left the story unfinished, and went on to other things.

This short essay is excerpted from Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance, a book by Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes in which they and other writers discuss the importance of objects in their lives. This is the eleventh essay in a series to appear on Design Observer.

Posted in: Media

Comments [6]

Please finish your story, I would like to read it!
Pete Gilbert

Please take the stamp also seriously...

The story on the Copy, Copy reminds me of the sound piece "I Am Sitting in a Room" from composer Alvin Lucier's. Lucier recorded himself narrating a text, and then he played the recording in a room and recorded that. He kept playing and recording systematically until the copy of the copy of the copy becomes unintelligible, replaced with tones and resonances, creating something new. In that case the copy of the copies was true to itself and true to the process, but not true to the original.

Renata Graw

Love the Taking Things Seriously series. Nice item, nice post.
Were this not Father's Day, I am not sure whether or not this
would have been the first thing to spring to mind regarding the
diminishing returns of copies, but in the mid 1960s my father was
a cop mid-sized Northeastern city and he would occasionally bring
home photocopies of gag cartoons. Invariably these were awful
jokes, filled with every conceivable strata of bigotry. My young
mind never found them funny, only “forbidden”. I am not judging
the old man, nor should you, he was a product of his time, his job
and the resistance to the changing era of the 1960s.

I only bring this up because putting aside the subject matter,
ethnic jokes, racism, sexism, and homophobia, the main
characteristic of these cartoons was that they had been
photocopied over and over and over again, to the point that the
drawings, the captions and the ideas were almost beyond
recognition. The art was scratchy, the words were unclear, the
concepts were fuzzy at best. I would like to think that American
society like my father has slowly moved on from those offensive
cartoons, that the power of those vile ideas has been diminished
every time a gag was copied, that when word and image are
beyond recognition that we have moved on as well. I hope so.

Like I said it's Father’s Day, and like most of you I am merely a
pale imitation of my father. Warts and all.

Mark Kaufman

Ceci n'est pas une copy.

Great stamp!

Should Tom return to work on his story, he might find Walter
Benjamin's essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Technological
invaluable. Tom's idea is an important one and
one that has been knocked around quite a bit. Benjamin's notion of
the copy and its complementary withering of the original, led rather
quickly to Baurdrillard's notion of Simulacra and off course
to hyperreality. Some might say that all have left, (and to the right,
too) are copies, and that even those things we pass off as original
are only objects or ideas that refer, consciously or unconsciously to
other existing phenomena. Hence the inability to please us for very
Robert Sawyer

Jobs | October 04