Monday, October 4, 2010

Ethics of Appropriation

for this discussion, please consider the following texts by Abe Louise Young, Ray McDaniel, Gregory Betts and Jonathan Lethem repsectively.

Young's essay slams Ray McDaniel for using material found on an archive that she built, carefully and respectively, to allow victims of Hurricane Katrina. Already disenfranchised, Young suggests that by plundering them McDaniel does further injustice:
I believe these people have a right to their narratives. In order to publish them, I believe that the speakers must be consulted and that they must be given the opportunity to sign off on copyright forms. By neglecting to inquire, much less make certain that his plans were acceptable to the narrators, McDaniel reenacted a familiar racist pattern, and a blind spot in American poetry publishing was revealed.
Hurricane Katrina did not happen in a vacuum, in America’s imagination, to everyone, or in general. It happened in a particular geography, a history, an economy, and a field of race and power built to render certain people powerless. When a white person takes the voices of people of color for his own uses, without permission, in the aftermath of a racially charged national disaster, it is vulture work—worse than ventriloquism.
from Abe Louise Young on Poetry Foundation

It's important to actually encounter the poetry in question here, but in his essay, McDaniel speaks of his writing project, a bit about his history and relationship to New Orleans and to the text.
I resist autobiographical writing. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to practice the art; I just don’t trust that it provides what it advertises. I don’t often try to write within its protocols, and thus I’m not very good at it. A reader won’t emerge from my poems with clear confidence in either backstory or the “thoughts” and “feelings” of the speaker who may or may not approximate me. My first and third books—Murder and the forthcoming Special Powers and Abilities—rigorously exclude any first-person speaker who acts as a stand-in for the poet. But for Saltwater Empire, at least, I’m in there, if in complicated ways, the explanation of which goes to what the book desires, and what I desired in making it.
from Ray McDaniel on Poetry Foundation 

Please see the original archive online, as well as McDaniel's poems online. Also read the comments on both streams and if you are still curious, see responses to these posts on Lemon Hound with further commentary.

Here is another take on the discussion:

Plunderverse makes use of the wealth and waste of language by exploiting the unattended information in a source text. It makes connections and variations of a previous author’s words to create a different poem from the original piece. But, whereas found poetry and the like celebrate the random connections discovered by abstract rules or unconventional readings of source texts, delighting in the dissolution of communication and the disjunctive semantic fragments that survive, plunderverse celebrates the possibilities of speaking through source texts.
Plunderverse limits its own expression to the source text, but attempts a genuine, divergent expression through the selection, deletion or contortion of it. Plunderverse makes poetry through other people’s words. The constraint is not random, but merely an accelerated variation of the basic fact of language: we already speak in each other’s words. Plunderverse exaggerates the constraints through which we realize and discover our own voice, re-enacting the struggle against influences and cultural histories. It does not try to obscure, bury or overcome influence, but, in fact, celebrates the process by which influences vary into and inform our own voices. It foregrounds the process of language acquisition, reveals the debt of influence and exploits the waste of language.

Finally, to round out the points of view, here is an excerpt from The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism by Jonathan Lethem originally in Harper's. Read the entire piece here.
All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . .
—John Donne
Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of anamour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator—marked by her forever—remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.
The author of the story I've described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov's novel. Lichberg later became a prominent journalist in the Nazi era, and his youthful works faded from view. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg's tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory? The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Another hypothesis is that Nabokov, knowing Lichberg's tale perfectly well, had set himself to that art of quotation that Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called “higher cribbing.” Literature has always been a crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast. Little of what we admire in Nabokov's Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter. Still: did Nabokov consciously borrow and quote?

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