Plagiarism, Creativity, and the Communal Politics of Renewal

Plagiarism, Creativity, and the Communal Politics of Renewal

Christian Moraru

As Christian Moraru argues here that the new is still the objective in contemporary writing. But writers and artists make it by making it anew rather than new (“Get it used,” Andrei Codrescu invites us), a new not so much novel as renovated, reframed and reproduced rather than produced, which by the same token redefines and advertises authorship as deliberate plagiarism.

Collage and cutup are ways of interrupting the continuity of the controlling discourse - mosaic is a way of renewing discourse.

Mosaic: new tiles, old fragments, odd scraps remix. Out of remnants new design. Continuous not discontinuous (Sukenick, “In My Own Recognizance”)


“The best way to consider originality,” Edward Said provocatively argues in The World, the Text, and the Critic is “to look not for first instances of a phenomenon, but rather to see duplication, parallelism, symmetry, parody, repetition, echoes of it… The writer thinks less of writing originally, and more of rewriting.” And he goes on to conclude: “The writer can be read as an individual whose impulse historically has been always to write through one or another given work” (135-136). It is important to keep in mind that what Said is talking about - and what literary and cultural history bears out - does not constitute an exceptional case such as postmodernism’s over-the-top “ecstasy of influence” recently diagnosed by Jonathan Lethem (59), but rather the norm, the usual way of doing things. Turning modernist anxiety into ecstatic proclivity - recycling modernism’s defining apprehension as programmatic procedure - the postmoderns rather thematize, render central, and flaunt a new creativity code. In the terms of classical rhetoric, this formula or principle, revolving as it still is around the pivotal role of imaginative creativity, shifts the emphasis from inventio onto dispositio or, from creation as invention onto creation as permutation, ars combinatoria, and intertextual appropriation.

The new is still the objective here. But recent writers and artists make it by making it anew rather than new (“Get it used,” Andrei Codrescu invites us), a new not so much novel as renovated, reframed and reproduced rather than produced, which by the same token redefines and advertises authorship as deliberate plagiarism. According to Raymond Federman, the imagination is still - and fundamentally - in play (49). Yet it switches openly into the “anew” mode to put forth new worldviews, indeed, to invent. What this mode fosters, in the authors of our time more conspicuously than in those before them, is the consequential realization that the imagination feeds, as Robert Scholes observes, “on previous imagination” and as such calls for an understanding of its “whole process… in terms of plagiarism” (214-15), highly mediated discourse where consistently, if oftentimes ironically and critically, one builds up a textual corpus by writing and working through other bodies of works. This is precisely what Kathy Acker, one of our most famous plagiarists, acknowledges in her own Bodies of Work. “I never write,” Acker discloses there, “anything new… I make up nothing” (12). For, she explains, “I never liked the idea of originality, and so my whole life I’ve always written by taking other texts, inhabiting them in some way so that I can do something with them” (27).

Acker’s notorious plagiarisms mount an assault not only on literary property but on property and propriety, aesthetic and social conduct broadly as keystones of modern society’s institutional structure. According to Acker, this society is to blame for the public indifference to writing and art in general no less than for their commodification. Thus, staving off their own turning into “big business” and resisting “materialism,” artistic theft and copyright infringement - real or simulated - are of the nature of “terrorist” attacks. Not unlike those, they seek to shock, draw attention, and make a political statement in a “careless” age that “marginalizes” its writers. As Acker further contends in Bodies of Work, “the literary industry depends upon copyright. But not literature. Euripides, for instance, wrote his version of Electra while Sophocles’s ‘copyright’ was still active. Not to mention Shakespeare’s, Marlowe’s, and Ford’s use of each other’s texts.” “My worries with copyright, however,” Acker adds, “are not so academic. My worries concern the increasing marginalization of writers and of their writings in society. Whenever writers are considered marginal to a society, something is deeply wrong, wrong in that society and wrong with the relations between writing and the society.” For, she insists, “to write should be to write the world and, simultaneously, to engage in the world. But the literary industry as it now exists seems to be obfuscating relations between this society’s writers and this society” (103).

Engaging the world means engaging with the world’s words, wrestling with always already preexistent names and representations. If the whole point is not merely to write the world into a new text but to rewrite it into a new sociopolitical makeup, then the ability - and the legal possibility - of retextualizing available textual embodiments of the world becomes crucial to this project in which rewording and reworlding are two faces of the same coin. “Whenever I am engaging in discourse,” Acker declares, “I am using given meanings and values, changing them and giving them back. A community, a society is always being constructed in discourse if and when discourse - including art - is allowed” (4). Addressing this very issue, cultural legal scholars from Martha Woodmansee, in The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature, to Lawrence Lessig, in Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology to and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, to Rosemarie J. Coombe and her The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties have gone so far as to argue, as Alfred C. Yen has in his essay “The Interdisciplinary Future of Copyright Theory,” that recent cultural forms bring us closer to considering the notion that “authorship is possible only when future authors have the ability to borrow” and that “if too much of each work is reserved as private property through copyright, future would-be authors will find it impossible to create” (159). Noteworthy in Acker is not only the concern about literary creativity, namely, the production of novelty along the lines of postmodern poetics, but also the stress - equally postmodern, I might add - on the politics of such novelty production beyond writing itself, where not just fictional construction but also communal reconstruction hinges on the writer’s appropriative access to extant discourse.

In an important if not immediately apparent sense, critical communalism and plagiarism go hand in hand. For one thing, if any community is more or less imagined, as Benedict Anderson and others have suggested, and, further, if any re-imagining must contend with previous images, new communities cannot be worked out from scratch but, as Acker proposes above, only worked through former paradigms of communality. For another thing, this is not “simply” a matter of “intertextuality” and “heteroglossia.” Or, if it is so, it is only insofar as the concepts preserve the meanings Bakhtin, Kristeva, and their culturalist followers assigned them. For these critics, text and context are tightly knit together, and so are self and other. In fact, the former dyad is a version of the latter, helping us understand why communalism and the political revisiting of community, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the problematic of cross-textual appropriation, here in its extreme form of assumed plagiarism, dovetail so intimately. As an artist, Lethem argues, I may live out the Rimbaldian adage “I is another” more intensely than anybody else (68). To project this “I,” to write it out and thus body it forth in a literary form, if I happen to be a writer, I must turn to other bodies of work. I have no choice but to pilfer the annals of the community, to wit, draw from other texts and others generally and thus incur a debt that is as much aesthetic as it is ethical. But the community is not just textual, the inherited textual and symbolic repository. It is also a project, a social space, perhaps a sodality formation of a new kind. It is through this project that I can pay my debt by casting the other, through writing and rewriting of the archive, into new roles and positions.


Ronald Sukenick’s 1975 novel 98.6 is compellingly “new” in this particular sense: not only formally innovative but also socially inquisitive, that is, a challenge to the late 1960s - early 1970s social routines and routine ways of imagining sociality both inside and outside mainstream venues, affiliations, and groupings. The writing of adventure (of plot, of “what happens”) and the adventure of writing, to recall Kristeva’s play - are here one and the same, virtually impossible to pry apart because they inherently share the same space and means, with the reinvention of communality as the overarching goal (98.6 68).

This novel communality, though, is to be carefully distinguished from commonality. What is or may in the long run become communal and positively so may not coincide with things “common,” (widely) accepted, with taken-for-granted representations and habits. As a matter of fact, it is only through the unwriting/rewriting of such commonalities and their linguistic-textual packaging that the “potential” for thought-provoking communality à la 98.6’s “Palestine” can be brought to fruition (Cornis-Pope 182-90). This communality or textual-social shared domain is “inoperative,” not unlike Jean-Luc Nancy’s Inoperative Community. It cannot and must not be one, “whole,” or a whole, but an evolving, ever-provisional Deleuzian assemblage occupying a fluid, half settled half u-topian topology at equal distance between solidified, socially jading sensus communis and non-sense, provocatively imaginative “Bjorsq”-like language (Noel 126-9). If so, then Palestine is an apt topos and tropos simultaneously, a locus of received communal imaginings as well as their transformative forum. Quite appropriately, “Mosaic Law” is the underlying principle of the novel itself and of the alternative, utopian world it unfolds in the end: the rule of necessary collage, of new (“new”) bodies of work and social bodies inevitably made of existing body parts, where discriminate agglutination (“psychosynthesis”) of the incorporated pieces precludes the ensuing mosaic’s rising into another totality within which self and other would be one more time organized disjunctively or hierarchically. According to the “law of mosaics” (Noel 129), the textual/communard archival detour of Sukenick’s u-topia is unavoidable. To move forward, one must retrace one’s steps first, “monstrous” as it may seem. In an age of instant obsolescence of (and hence decreased sensitivity to) the new, a process for which DeLillo’s Cosmopolis remains the unsurpassed chronicle, this monstrousness may not be right away visible, for few occurrences are likely to make us stop and pay attention, “look at” (see Lat. monstrare).

Responding to this shortage of cultural “eventfulness” (something DeLillo has also reflected on) is in 98.6 the mosaic/monstrous poetics of body parts and other Frankensteinian cutups. Nor does this recycling cycle end with the 1975 novel. Inside the Sukenick corpus, it continues, largely speaking, with Mosaic Man and, more recently, Last Fall. Outside yet in close relation to what happens on the inside, it has been extended spectacularly by Matthew Roberson’s plagiaristic tour de force 1998.6: what goes around comes around albeit in new (“new”) shape. For, to be sure, Roberson’s is a superb inside job, a sublime theft rendering aggression and devotion, necrophilia and hagiography quite indistinguishable. I think few people have a clearer sense of Sukenick’s literary, cultural, and political significance than Roberson. Musing the Mosaic: Approaches to Ronald Sukenick and “Ronald Sukenick’s Topography” (which Roberson has worked into the 2002 book) are among his solid credentials. But 1998.6 certainly comes first, and not just because imitatio, the plagiarizing rewrite in this case, is the most thorough aemulatio but because understanding, as Georges Poulet tells us, works itself out in a moment or as a ritual of identification with the object, where the subject is just a sympathetic site for the latter’s reenactment.

Speaking of which: in Last Fall Sukenick does reenact - without cannibalizing - himself. Autoplagiarism is probably too strong a word for the book, but, otherwise, 98.6 is all here, complete with its community master theme and the very subjects of plagiarism, larceny, theft, and forgery. Very briefly, Last Fall retrofits 98.6 as a sort of post-9/11 communalist venture with the non-urban California/Palestine “Monster” house refurbished as a no less fictional Manhattan Museum of Temporary Art. The Brownian motion of the “Children of Frankenstein” is also restaged by the alert couplings and recouplings of those directly and indirectly associated with the Museum (employees, donors, art experts, artists). The fall of the house of Frankenstein and the crisis of the community under its roof (which leads to the “Palestine” utopia of self and other) are both acted out and accelerated by the collapse of the Twin Towers, for which the Museum becomes a resonance box of sorts. This “last fall” may well be the true postlapsarian event. Jarring in and of itself, it shakes up, literally and in all senses, the Museum’s foundations, more exactly, not only what the endowment stands for as an art “foundation” set up by one Fynch but also as an implicit communal project. Yet again, the two components are hardly “discrete.” For The Book of Genesis’s Fall marks the onset of history, hence of human communities, which the 9/11 “fall” may be said to re-mark, tragically quote, as much as it also parenthetically plagiarizes the other biblical fall - of the House of Babel - the historical and social upshots of which are arguably similar. As an event, the Fall demarcates the ad quem, the inception of all eventuality, of temporality itself as both stage of occurrences and occasion for historical formations, for human associations. In short, the Fall, either that of “Man” or of the Babel Tower’s, was the fall into time and communality, into a time as scene on which communality can be given various bodies but where, no matter the embodiments, the dynamic of self and other underpins them all. As Levinas urges us in Time and the Other, we should remember that the two elements in his book’s title are intimately and crucially interdependent given that death, which obsesses Sukenick all the way to the last page of his last book, is, as a “future of the event, not yet time. In order for this future, which is nobody’s and which a human being cannot assume, to become an element of time,” Levinas clarifies, “it must also enter into relationship with the present.” “What is,” the philosopher asks, “the tie between two instants that have between them the whole interval, the whole abyss, that separates the present and death, this margin at once both insignificant and infinite, where there is always room enough for hope?” And he answers:

It is certainly not a relationship of pure contiguity, which would transform time into space, but neither is it the élan of dynamism and duration, since for the present this power to be beyond itself and to encroach upon the future seems to me precisely excluded by the very mystery of death.

Relationship with the future, the presence of the future in the present, seems all the same accomplished in the face-to-face with the Other. The situation of the face-to-face would be the very accomplishment of time; the encroachment of the present on the future is not the feat of the subject alone, but the intersubjective relationship. The condition of time lies in the relationship between humans, or in history. (79)

But the Museum “lies” outside history. As ex-Temporal as Temporary, it stands completely outside time. It is a counterintuitive concept twice. That is, it purports to hold the immaterial essence of artworks devoted to change, hence ever-changing, fluid, impossible to contain or hold; therefore, such items refer back to the same thing over and over again, and in so doing make up, in their identical non-existence - for the place has no material objects on display - one big selfsame show. What is more, the aesthetic predicament has an (un)ethical analogy in the kind of community those tied to the Museum (and its selfsameness) form: this too, as one may imagine, rules out others. As it turns out, the Museum’s personnel and habitués are all related and have been carrying on, in various, ever-changing configurations, incestuous affairs. The endogenous return of the same (to itself) within the never altered circle of kin and kind de facto blocks change inasmuch as alteration, alternative, and such presuppose the presence of others (alteri) within. In their absence, change and, with it, time do no happen at all while, as the WTC buildings’ collapse suggests, anything can happen at any given time. “Frozen” as they are in an eternal present, people and art objects in reality fall not only outside time but also in extemporaneity altogether, so it is only befitting that the institution’s new administration changes its name to the “Extemporaneous Arts Museum” and plans to feature installations and happenings revolving around the impromptu, the sudden, and the unexpected. Spelled out in the end, the collusion of the “Extemp” and “Fundamental”(ist) agendas implies that the new aesthetics does not cultivate the unrehearsed and the spontaneous, which would only be in line with Sukenick’s ideology of defamiliarization/renovelization through language plays and intertextuality. Quite the contrary, the alliance hints at how everything cancels out everything else (Last Fall 307), casting us into a “pure present” where, because everything takes place at the same time, nothing - that is, death - happens (308). In it, history comes to a standstill. Or, to put it otherwise, this is where people and things “escape from history” (308) itself but only to “fall” out of human time and space into a definitive achronic a-topos, a “negative,” post-social chronotope in which neither transformation nor fellowship are imaginable.

In rewriting 98.6, 1998.6 sets out to rescue Sukenick’s utopianism from its atopian fall. The plagiarism is both conspicuous and critically geared toward a communal politics of renewal intent on “renewing” the “tutor” text by repeating it with a difference and thus relaunching the “Palestine” project. I have called Roberson’s book a tour de force, and I do not think it is an exaggeration; I would also describe it as a tour of forces or, a detour, rather, through the Deleuzian field force of Sukenick’s discourse where traditional idioms, phraseologies, and textual references are deployed, taken apart, and reshuffled so as to form that new (“new”) linguistic order in which the “Extraordinary” can arise and become rule (“run-of-the-mill”) in response to the “problem” Sukenick poses throughout his career. The problem or at least one problem is the dullness of the world, what above I identify as social and semiotic routine, the clichés of life and images. Roberson thinks there is a way out of this routine yet not into ahistoricity and atemporality but into a distinct form of communality, and he also thinks - rightly to my mind - that Sukenick points to it.

Rewriting the “master” and by the same token outwriting him too? A contest disguised as devotion, as sublime theft, as I said earlier? I would answer with a tentative “yes.” The Sukenick aficionados will undoubtedly identify a wholesale reproduction of the “original,” from narrative parallels to character and theme repertoire to textual transcription to stylistic pastiche. They will probably appreciate the cultural update too, as 1998.6 rewrites 98.6 into the Internet era of visual literacy, video cams, and real-time connectedness. But it does so on purpose, and the purpose is to recentralize the issues of human contact and relatedness, without which the problematic of communality remains unthinkable. 98.6 is about writing a number of people into a community and winds up on a utopian note that Last Fall brings into question. 1998.6 still acknowledges “failure” as a possible outcome - “failure” is its last word quite literally - but establishes a relation to its pre-text so as to plug itself into Sukenick’s utopia, refuel its writing machine, and crank it up for another run, yet not out of history, oppositional as that exit might be, but into the very bowels of the “contemporary.” Reworking the “Palestine” epilogue into his own closing chapter likewise titled, the narrator discloses, like Ron in 98.6, that he is actually writing a book, namely, “a study of life in what might be the contemporary world” (1998.6 248), which necessarily began as a study of Sukenick’s oeuvre. Where the pre-text sublates its world into “Palestine,” the post-text emendates its own as “Televisrael.” Symbolic on several levels, the name of Roberson’s utopia alludes to a potential, mutual and multiple accommodation of self and other, sameness and difference, community and individuality, object and sign within the sociodiscursive framework of the Levinasian “face-to-face conversation” (248). “[A]ll dramas begin,” we learn in Roberson’s “Palestine,” with “human connection” (243), but it is also with it that we can begin to imagine a solution for, indeed, the space of connectivity - the place of the “face-to-face” - “energizes” mind and body, prompts people to overcome physical and intellectual “apathy” and enter that “Phase of Imagination” (244) where things can be seen otherwise. A “collective” kind of “assemblage” (249) insofar as it moves forward by steeping itself into the past of “Ron’s book” (249), which, we saw, in its own time made a similar move, 1998.6 is so ideally positioned to project, within, another collective - its Televisrael and outside, itself as pre-text to future appropriations, as member of a plagiarizing collective to come. This virtually endless cross-textual sequence founds a literary-historical utopia of sorts, a (re)writers’ community across styles and times. In the “honest position or place” Roberson opens up in his book, the authors, himself included, “facilitat[e] discourse” (248) rather than originate it. They depend on others to understand themselves and the world because “It is only in coming to know another person that you come to know about the world around you” (248). It is on this “alter-nate” epistemology, on the other’s participation in discourse and proximity in space that both the understanding and the renewal of the world are premised.

Works Cited

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Coombe, Rosemary J. The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998.

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Federman, Raymond. Critifiction: Postmodern Essays. Albany: SUNY P, 1993.

Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.” Harper’s Feb. 2007: 59-71.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Time and the Other, and Additional Essays. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 1987.

Noel, Daniel C. “Tales of Fictive Power: Dreaming and Imagination in Ronald Sukenick’s Postmodern Fiction.” boundary 2 5.1 (1976): 117-136.

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___ . “Ronald Sukenick’s Topography.” electronic book review 1998. 1 Mar. 2007

Said, Edward W. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1983.

Scholes, Robert. Fabulation and Metafiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.

Sukenick, Ronald. 98.6. A Novel. New York: Fiction Collective, 1975.

___ . Last Fall. Normal, IL: FC2, 2005.

___ . “In My Own Recognizance.” electronic book review 16 Sept. 2003. 2 Mar. 2007

Woodmansee, Martha, and Peter Jaszi, eds. The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1994.

Yen, Alfred C. “The Interdisciplinary Future of Copyright Theory.” Woodmansee and Jaszi 159-173.