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Appropriate Appropriation?

What is appropriation, & when does it cross the line into plagiarism?

Also, is it different to do this with a living writer’s work v. a dead writer’s work?

I’ve been having this conversation A LOT lately, with a wide range of writers with a crazy amount of variation in answer. Oddly enough, one of the most conservative/traditional writers I know is totally ok with appropriation that is practically plagiarism, whereas some of the most least conservative/traditional writers have been arguing against it. Those of you who know my more recent writing know I’m all about appropriation, but when does it “cross the line”? I find myself increasingly conservative on this issue. Hmm…

13 thoughts on “Appropriate Appropriation?

  1. Have you read Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism”? He makes some good arguments, and then at the end cites where he lifted all of his points from. Pretty clever. For me the irony of my paintings is that the writing is the only thing (usually…) that isn’t appropriation, yet it’s the only component where people ask me where I’ve taken it from…
    Obviously I fall into the steal everything and salt the earth camp…lol!!!!

    Here it is from the Harper’s website (my linking itself being an appropriation…ha!):


    1. No surprise that Lethem is a fan of appropriation–he’s basically a collector/fan in constitution. Whose recent post spoke about collecting? I don’t remember. But I think these impulses are related. And as such, not being a collector myself, I rarely have the urge to appropriate. Of course, as John points out below, the argument can quickly spiral into a purely theoretical space (e.g. all language is citation, etc.), but on a practical level, as a matter of experience or intention, I think it just comes down to disposition. I’d almost always prefer to write a sentence than quote one–even if it’s to the detriment of my work (meaning, even if a similar thing has been said before, and better.)

      Done as a philosophical statement–something that points out the interdependency, I suppose, of individuals, or of language acts–I usually think, well, that point has been made. Done as an artistic/aesthetic decision, I take it on a case by case basis. I don’t have a radical moral system that prevents me from appreciating “stolen” work.

      1. Shya – I tend to agree with you about that instinct. I use a lot of appropriation (in my own way) and much of my life is dictated by collecting (often abstractly – as I discussed in my post). The impulse is really one and the same.

  2. Anything that deposes the hegemony of the “Author,” or, rather, illustrates, as per Roland Barthes (to, ironically, cite an “authority”), that the author never existed in the first place, is fine with me.

    Speaking of Barthes, in his “The Death of the Author” (overall a criticism of relying on sides of the author’s identity to understand the work), after referring to Balzac’s Sarrasine, writes:

    [A]ll writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.

    And then, after discussing the continuum of tribal societies where “narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose ‘performance’ may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his ‘genius,’” Barthes then positions the “author” as a modern construct, briefly glossing on its connection with capitalist ideology (something which, of course, needs further elucidation). Following this, he adds some further nails to the coffin:

    Though the Author’s empire is still very powerful (recent criticism has often merely consolidated it), it is evident that for a long time now certain writers have attempted to topple it. In France, Mallarme was doubtless the first to see and foresee in its full extent the necessity of substituting language itself for the man who hitherto was supposed to own it; for Mallarme, as for us, it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality — never to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realistic novelist — that point where language alone acts, “performs,” and not “oneself”: Mallarme’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author for the sake of the writing (which is, as we shall see, to restore the status of the reader.) Valery, encumbered with a psychology of the Self, greatly edulcorated Mallarme’s theory, but, turning in a preference for classicism to the lessons of rhetoric, he unceasingly questioned and mocked the Author, emphasized the linguistic and almost “chance” nature of his activity, and throughout his prose works championed the essentially verbal condition of literature, in the face of which any recourse to the writer’s inferiority seemed to him pure superstition. It is clear that Proust himself, despite the apparent psychological character of what is called his analyses, undertook the responsibility of inexorably blurring, by an extreme subtilization, the relation of the writer and his characters: by making the narrator not the person who has seen or felt, nor even the person who writes, but the person who will write (the young man of the novel — but, in fact, how old is he, and who is he? — wants to write but cannot, and the novel ends when at last the writing becomes possible), Proust has given modern writing its epic: by a radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as we say so often, he makes his very life into a work for which his own book was in a sense the model, so that it is quite obvious to us that it is not Charlus who imitates Montesquiou, but that Montesquiou in his anecdotal, historical reality is merely a secondary fragment, derived from Charlus. Surrealism lastly — to remain on the level of this prehistory of modernity — surrealism doubtless could not accord language a sovereign place, since language is a system and since what the movement sought was, romantically, a direct subversion of all codes — an illusory subversion, moreover, for a code cannot be destroyed, it can only be “played with”; but by abruptly violating expected meanings (this was the famous surrealist “jolt”), by entrusting to the hand the responsibility of writing as fast as possible what the head itself ignores (this was automatic writing), by accepting the principle and the experience of a collective writing, surrealism helped secularize the image of the Author. Finally, outside of literature itself (actually, these distinctions are being superseded), linguistics has just furnished the destruction of the Author with a precious analytic instrument by showing that utterance in its entirety is a void process, which functions perfectly without requiring to be filled by the person of the interlocutors: linguistically, the author is never anything more than the man who writes, just as I is no more than the man who says I: language knows a “subject,” not a “person,” end this subject, void outside of the very utterance which defines it, suffices to make language “work,” that is, to exhaust it.

    While the tone of this may appear “negative,” Barthes argument leads to how the death of the author leads to the birth of the reader.

      1. sure, i can dig the death of the author leads to the birth of the reader, but what if YOU are the author being deathed? does that make it any different? it’s one thing if i’m the one stealing, yeah, i love stealing, but if i’m the one being stolen, i don’t know… but then again, what is stealing & what is artistic “freedom”?

        & let’s not forget wilde: talent borrows; genius steals.

      2. I’m assuming you mean the formatting thing, not in the things I quote, although I’ll take the compliment both ways. For formatting, in your posting window, on the same line where you’ll find symbols to make the text bold or italicized, you’ll also find a curly quote which you can use to set off text with the nifty, larger quotation mark. There’s also symbols for linking, breaking your text into two parts, indenting, etc.

  3. Lily, this post of yours is my best post here so far.

    …For me, the challenge is always to justify the appropriation. If an author takes something just because it’s cool, then—hrm. I don’t think that makes the appropriator look all that good. (Why not just write something cool yourself?) Like, look at this:

    Rob Liefeld:

    Frank Miller:

    ..Rob Liefeld may have intended this page layout as an homage to Frank Miller, but he comes across looking like a hack. (The fact that Liefeld has a long history of doing this kind of thing doesn’t help his case.)

    I tell my writing students all the time: don’t give me a paper that’s all quotes, because then I’ll just want to go read those papers, not yours. (I have this problem with filmmakers all the time: they quote from a better movie, and then I wish I were watching that movie instead.)

    But if you can take another person’s writing (or whatever) and work it into yours—synthesizing something—then so much the better. That pushes everyone forward, I think.

    Sadie Benning, for example, is great at doing this. Her use of Nirvana’s “Negative Creep” in one of her early videos (“It Wasn’t Love,” I think) is pretty brilliant: “Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more.” She completely subverts the song. Her video is simultaneously a work of musical criticism and an original expressive artwork—a synthesis built on an appropriation.


    1. adam: you’re funny. this is why i like you.

      but really, you make some great points, only what if i (the appropriator) fails to make something as “cool” as the original (the appropriated)? if my goal is simply to engage in conversation, isn’t that enough? & do you think appropriation (done “well” whatever that means) does push everyone forward?

      i do it, yes, but i’m not sure i buy it yet. argh, i’m head’s in a knot now.

      1. You, Lily, will always make something cool enough!

        No, that’s something for others to judge. Some may think it’s cool, others may not. I’m not trying to evade the argument—but. I mean, I know some people who don’t like Kathy Acker; there’s no pleasing everyone.

        A different example: Many people are simply nuts over the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. You’ll find extensive praise of them everywhere.

        I’ve seen two of his films: “Uzak” (“Distant,” 2002) and “Iklimler” (“Climates,” 2006). I couldn’t stand either one of them. “Distant” struck me as a pale imitation of Tarkovsky, “Climates” a pale imitation of Bergman.

        (I wrote a negative review of Distant here:

        So—? No doubt Ceylan thinks that what he’s doing is cool enough. And many others agree. I disagree. I didn’t go to see his most recent movie. (My loss?)

        Who knows, maybe someday I’ll get what he’s doing. Until then, I’d rather read Kathy Acker.


  4. That Lethem essay is very good.

    I’ve been doing a lot of appropriating the past few years. It’s a great way to get inside a text, to pursue a small theme, quirk, or elemental usage of a source piece.

    I see appropriating as a critical analysis of a source text that is very direct–full of filter and point of view. You retain much of the original intent of the author without imposing a new vocabulary. You present your view of the source text (or maybe only one facet of it) without losing the essential character of the original voice.

  5. Lily,

    I think the current paranoia around appropriation is very much a fear driven by a certain ethical system that has been built to excuse our participation in some of the more abusive aspects of our economic system. The small group who makes money off of “intellectual property” has waged a pretty effective campaign to make others believe that their right to make money in exactly the same way that they have been should continue in perpetuity, and that we have a moral imperative to defend their profit system.

    I totally agree with you too, Lily. Anecdotally, some of my most experimental and ‘avant garde’ friends are those who are the most focused on property and ownership when it comes to their work. They’re the ones on witch hunts for people biting their lines and interested in “print runs” and controlled distribution of their work. It often exasperates me, but the good news is that the writing world is growing up. It’s amazing that any small press still insists on supporting the system of copyright (I think many simply do it passively), but more and more books I read make sure to fore-go copyright with more responsible licenses like those from Creative Commons.

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