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Mirjam Horn

ConText – Conflicting Authorship in Kathy Acker’s Plagiarist Fiction


“Common literary technique – I am not satisfied.” (Kathy Acker)
In the transnational market place of cultural products, global processes increasingly display inconsistencies for the generation and appropriation of knowledge. Some of these emerging contradictions can be easily experienced as fertile chances to probe and, consequently, establish new both thematic and structural fields of criticism: the local, for instance, is or can be reconcilable with the global providing a productive interface and an enormous amount of interrelations; the experience of ‘mediated immediacy’ (inter alia Sullivan, Hunt, and Lippert 2004) connects to the idea of the dismissal of the body in global communication systems; and actual technological innovations are quickly absorbed either in terms of medial practice or by theoretical frameworks (cultural materialism).

Yet, sometimes especially experimental and radical ideas seem far too incompatible. This is frequently the case when the intended connection of two or more concepts fundamentally questions one of the former established frameworks. Text, both in a narrow and broader sense (‘the world as text’) the decisive means of transportation for information and experience, has repeatedly come under fire from various angles: What exactly is a ‘text’, how does it differ from a ‘work’, and, in particular, who governs/owns it?

From Plato to the advocates of digital text production, these questions have already been discussed on the basis of inspiration – imitation, classification – imagination, or set up as a tiresome fight between the conservative quest for originals and the poststructuralist ‘killing of the author’. Yet the crucial issue persists in accepting, on the one hand, a free circulation of ideas as argued in concepts like Foucault’s discourse analysis or Kristeva’s intertextuality and, on the other, real and practiced legal enforcement of intellectual property laws.

These two parallel factors and developments – one a theoretical tool to unchain text, the other the central means to prevent exactly that – are heavily inconsistent. The reconceptualizations of text and authorship that brought about a profound critique of power relations in and of text seem just too unorthodox (or ‘extra-ordinary’) for a reconcilable alliance with the overall practice of the literary industry making the unmarked inclusion of ‘other’ material a downright crime.

Kathy Acker, American avant-garde literate till 1997, would not accept assigned notions of the inspirational breeding of works and therefore owning text by means of legal and financial compensation. Her oeuvre of over 20 novels constantly challenged this restriction area of eventually employing post-structuralist theoretical claims as a literary practice. This application exceeded the ‘regular’ and accepted use of quotes, allusions, and other forms of tolerated referencing; it was a tightly knit collage, a texture of interwoven passages from the established canon of both the ‘dw(e)ms’ (‘dead white (European) males’) and actually living authors, the latter very ready to confront Acker for her crime.

In Empire of the Senseless (1988), the protagonists are half-robot, half-human prostitute Abhorra and the black, anarchic wannabe pirate Thivai who set out on a journey, a literal ‘tour de force’, from apocalyptic Paris to Algeria, Berne and back. Yet they travel not only in between these places but also in time – textual time, that is: Empire’s intertexts include Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, passages from Marquis de Sade, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

By turning to these texts from white male authors and appropriating them for a new context, Acker of course provides the reader with a re-writing of established literary content and the alleged paternal perspective on and within history. This thematic reconfiguration has already been in the focus of both post-colonial literature and feminist writings and Empire of the Senseless may easily be situated in that tradition. Yet her literary nemesis with the Reagan era of the 1980s does not stop at legally criticizing it by subverting the canon. She faithfully copies parts from these books (whose copyright is sometimes still valid, sometimes not) and aligns them next to her ‘own’ phrases. It is right at this point she crosses the demarcation line between legal referencing and illegal plagiarism – a taboo that still and ever more powerfully determines a writer’s reputation and moral integrity. The clash of ideas triggers even more controversy once writers declare the ‘stealing’ of texts their aesthetic agenda.

As a consequence, despite post-structuralist literary theory’s attempt to free texts from their integrated wholeness and to deny their utter dependence from an authorial source, literary production, criticism, and the overall commodification of the text and the book are still legitimized by a 19th century understanding of authorship: the author continues to be the decisive source and tool to classify, index, and interpret his/her work.

Discussing the crucial interface of the post-structuralist understanding of text as a free, unauthorized corpus of words, and the real context of legal frameworks that prohibits the boundless distribution and creative reproduction of works deserves yet again consideration.

So what seems to present a rather odd or already very much talked-through concept attracts huge attention as we produce and distribute text on an even larger scale than it was after the democratization of writing by Gutenberg’s printing press. Context becomes Con-Text and, by that, an element within the global power struggle over ownership and authoritative notions of authorship.