The man who was selling an obsolete but recent version of Photoshop on eBay claimed to operate out of Yazoo City, Mississippi. However, the box that arrived in my mailbox came from China. It had obviously been designed to hold a plastic jewelbox, but the disc it contained was packaged only in an envelope. Of course both of those circumstances made me suspicious. Yes, I had read that the concept of intellectual property is all but nonexistent in China. Still, everything about the package except the envelope looked authentic. I slipped the disc into my computer.
The computer clicked and buzzed for several minutes, then popped up a message: “Format this blank disc?” That was when I got around to reading the fine print on the back of the box. The spacing between letters, I noticed at last, was full of errors, and some of the text seemed to have been plagiarized from Finnegans Wake.
I may have been twelve or thirteen years old when somebody gave my parents a banknote from Vichy France and I asked my father to translate the fine print that read, “Le contrefacteur sera puni des travaux forcés à perpetuité” – that is, literally, “He who counterfeits will be punished with life at forced labor.” For reasons I can’t reconstruct now, I was fascinated by the stern integrity of that idiom. It promised to punish not the act of counterfeiting but the counterfeiter himself. Not until just now, when I found myself translating on my own from the language of counterfeit, did I get the humor of that joke from occupied France.
The joke isn’t in the text, it’s in the pictures. See how they illustrate the replacement of Republican France’s political device, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” which demands that we change ourselves, by the slogan of Marshal Pétain’s Etat français, “Travail, famille, patrie,” which is a declaration of stasis issued in the form of a command. Don’t worry your heads about politics, these pictures say to France. Get back to work, keep on making babies for the Germans, and leave the thinking to us. We’ll be at work ourselves, cranking away at the printing press. And when you need some counterfeit value, just ask us. We’re the professionals.
A few years earlier, Marcel Duchamp had done some high-quality engraving himself: a label bearing a photograph of himself as Rrose Sélavy and the words “Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette.” The Lalique flacon which bore the label was empty, or rather it contained nothing but a veiled hint of the beautiful breath of la belle Hélène.
What do you think, readers: wouldn’t Photoshop be producing more interesting art for us, right now, if only M. Duchamp had written its program?