SEX AND PLAGIARISM: Kathy Acker Walks Into a Bar…

By Elif Kayahan

I. 

00.20 A.M. on a Thursday night. A bar with dim lighting. Nothing special about the place. Just another bar in a relatively poor neighborhood close to the university. At one table sit three middle-aged women. Their cashmere scarves and pearl earrings give away that they don’t quite fit in here. They are here to observe and maybe experiment a little. They whisper rather than talk, and keep glancing at the couple sitting on the bar stools. The boy and the girl must be students at the university. I haven’t heard the girl talking a lot. She mostly  mumbles, shakes her head and looks around. But the boy has been citing from Ancient Greek poems and explained the lines enough times for me to notice. He has charming looks. Yet she seems to be bored. I think she wants to fuck him more than he realizes.  

And then, there is me. Sipping my third drink of the night and reading Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations. I came here tonight in hopes of getting some inspiration for a new short story but haven’t scribbled down a word yet. Instead, I found myself diving into this book my roommate gave me. Struggling with confusion and fascination for more than two hours now, I read: “It’s a common belief that something exists when it’s part of a narrative. Self-reflective consciousness is narrational” (54). This statement feels like a nice place to breathe a little, to ask the question that has been at the back of my mind the whole night: What the fuck am I reading? What is this book?  

II. 

Self-reflective consciousness is narrational (54). I look into things or into myself and tell a story of a reality. “I” exists in my narration, dissolves in yours, is reborn now and dies in the next hour. Story changes, reality transforms, identity vaporizes. Narrative is never coherent but always in relation with other stories. Clouds of meaning interfere with each other over an intertextual network. Great Expectations destroys Dickens. Every part changes (the meaning of) every other part so there’s no absolute… (4). Keats’ virgins love each other on St. Agnes Eve, or he rapes the virgin on St. Agnes Eve; Cynthia was hysterically jealous, or Propertius was an abuser. One text must subvert (the meaning of) another text until there’s only background music like reggae (11).  Great Expectations is a sound, a web, pain, desire, hope, disappointment, passion, rape and fuck. It is Life, while it has nothing to do with the Real. It is what happens behind the book, the paper, the ink when it only exists in between the printed words. This isn’t an expression of a real thing: this is the thing itself… The living thing the real thing is not what people tell you it is: it’s what it is (59). Language cannot express reality, but all we have is language. Reality is absent in language. Barthes announced that the author was dead; the reader mourned and moved on. Descartes’ mind dissolved in the unconscious. The scars on the whore’s body blinded Oedipus. The sword is prone in this inverted triangle between author, reader, and text. A narrative is an emotional moving (54). There are only parts, when combined they leave a moving of emotion. Interactions became so much more interesting than that which was being portrayed that the concepts of portraiture and therefore of reality were undermined or transferred (78). Acker’s book is not a narrative but a textual environment which involves all my past, all the books we both read, all the people you and I met. We are HOLES who DON’T EXIST (48) when Acker enters me, her father enters O and the women pierce the whore. My narration of self-reflective consciousness is now coming to nothingness. 

III.

I put down the pen and watch the snow outside for a while. The waiter brings me two drinks this time. The door opens and you come in as a dog that has been beaten up follows you inside. You smile and sit in front of me. Taking a sip to wet your throat you say: 

When I was a child, the only thing I wanted was to be a pirate. 

Great! I’m so drunk that a dead author has been resurrected from the grave to tell me her childhood dream of becoming a pirate. Before I have a chance to reply, we hear the boy say something that shakes us to our cores.  

BOY: I understand that you’re weak. I want a strong feminist.  

GIRL: Maybe you should go with someone else. (Hopefully) 

We can’t decide whether to laugh or get annoyed. Then you say: 

As a result of his own barrenness, he develops a capacity to absorb the fertility of others. The only way you can get the real self is to rip someone off. 

Is that what you do? Is this why you take from other texts? Rip them off to create the real self? 

I knew this as a child, that, as a girl, I was outside the world. I wasn’t. I had no name. For me, language was being. There was no entry for me into language. I could neither have nor make meaning in the world. I was unspeakable so I ran into the language of others. I have found only the reiterations, the mimesis of patriarchy, or my inability to be.  

We are born into this already existing, complicated network of texts. Then we build on them, wreck them, tear them apart, put the most incompatible pieces together, mix, destroy, appropriate… I like making collages because it makes me feel like a child again. Even as I’m sitting here in this bar, I am stealing words from my fascist high school teacher, my grandmother, a New York Times article I read on the subway yesterday, and my thesis advisor’s dissertation. If the self is written and rewritten by previous texts, how is it possible not to write other people’s works?  

“If the self is written and rewritten by previous texts, how is it possible not to write other people’s works?”

I came to plagiarism from exploring identity, and I wanted to see what pure plagiarism would look like. It was the simple fact of copying that fascinated me. I wasn’t interested in the “I” of me, but in what the textual “I” looked like. So, I took some biography and made it into an autobiography to see what would happen. I knew I wanted to plagiarize, but I didn’t have a clear theoretical justification for what I was doing or why. So, I just started finding these different texts and putting them together. 

Were you ever in trouble? You probably don’t know this, but there have been many plagiarism scandals in poetry over the last decades, poets apologizing to each other for two or three words of resemblances. Both the moral responsibilities and legal formulations seem to be vague and insufficient to determine how an artist should “acceptably” steal. This literary game we’re playing with texts might result in serious accusations. What if I write a work of fiction about a real person, and pretend to speak on their behalf?  

My own publisher let me know that they were taking one of my books off the market because they had been informed there was some chance that Harold Robbins might sue me over some  material I’d appropriated. Anyway, it was a horrendous experience that completely disrupted my life. I couldn’t even answer my phone for three weeks, so I just had to get out of the country for a while. I was also feeling very threatened as a writer. I kept thinking to myself, Look, this is a minor, piddling little incident really – it’s about a book I wrote twenty years ago about something Robbins wrote thirty years ago. But what if I was ever seriously attacked? 

Then, why does an artist plagiarize, imitate, cut-copy-paste, appropriate? For instance, sometimes I’m too terrified to speak my own words and play with others’ instead. Does it make my work any less important? 

The truth is I have always used appropriation in my works because I literally can’t write any other way. I couldn’t find my own voice. So I began to do what I had to do if I wanted to write, and that was appropriate, imitate, and find whatever ways I could to work with and improvise off of other texts. What it comes down to is that I don’t like the idea of originality. The quality of making or creation in me that comes out – whatever it is in me has to do with making – is based on a reactive rather than an active principle. I don’t see a blank page when I’m writing. Ever. Or when I do nothing happens. I can’t even write people letters. I’ve never applied for a grant. Blank page is like an invitation to paralysis for me, not to creative activity. 

I just realized Great Expectations would be perfect for one of my final papers this term, but I feel academia is too limited for whatever this book is. Your narrative or (de)narrative resists being analyzed through an academic autopsy.  

I absolutely hate it. I’ve seen too many English departments destroy people’s delight in reading. Take the case of semiotics and postmodernism. When I was first introduced to the work of Foucault and Deleuze, it was very political; it was about what was happening to the economy and about changing the political system. By the time it was taken up by the American academy, the politics had gone to hell. It became an exercise for some professors to make their careers. The culture is there to uphold the postcapitalist society, and the idea that art has nothing to do with politics is a wonderful construction in order to mask the deep political significance that art has. 

IV. 

Since the girl has left the bar crying, and the boy is only drinking and staring at his glass in a defeated gloomy manner, the three women direct their attention to us. Your short hair and piercings and my mini skirt and see-through shirt are more than enough to make us into the whores the honorable wives have come here to see. I pity, if not hate, the way they look at us. You say that there is fascination behind their judgment: “These women tremble in front of whores.”  

Hmm. I look at the women and then the book and finally at you.  

You know, although there are countless sex scenes in this novel, there is almost no eroticism. At least for me.  

I can’t see how people would get aroused by the sex I’m describing in my books. It’s not that I write erotic or pornographic materials (although I have, obviously, within specific sections of my books), but that my general view is erotic or sexual. As a woman but also just as a person looking around at the way things operate, it’s hard for me not to be concerned with that; it’s 

almost an obsession. And, then, to be honest, I think my own sexuality probably colors my books very deeply, both in content and in structure. 

You abuse the language through disrupted syntax, conflicting and incomplete statements, confusing use of punctuation. You are subverting the meaning and the plot organization with multiple style, forms and allusions. As it is outside and beyond symbolic language, your narrative eludes the phallocentric structure at the cost of losing its meaning. Or, eluding meaning you create a bodily writing. 

We shall define sexuality as that which can’t be satisfied and therefore as that which transforms the person. Stylistically: simultaneous contrasts, extravagancies, incoherencies, half-formed misshapen thoughts, lousy spelling, what signifies what? What is the secret of this chaos? Since there’s no possibility, there’s play. Elegance and completely filthy sex fit together. Expectations that aren’t satisfied. 

Are you talking about sex or your writing?  

V. 

I want to say “fuck, shit, prick.” 

FUCK. SHIT. PRICK. 

Ha ha. 

Cheers! 

Oh, for a Life of Sensations rather than Thoughts! 

VI. 

I’m going to tell you something. The author of the work you are reading is a scared little shit. She’s frightened, forget what her life’s like, scared out of her wits, she doesn’t believe what she believes so she follows anyone.  

… 

 Wait, who said that? Was it you or me? 

… 

She’s too scared to know what love is she has no idea what money is she runs away from anyone so anything she’s writing is un-knowledge. 

… 

Stop. Who are you talking to? 

… 

And she says I’m an ass cause I want to please. What I’m going to do? Teach? 

Author: You’re a dumb cocksucker. 

… 

Kathy! Stop. Now! 

Dear Reader, 


Elif Kayahan is a student of the RMA Comparative Literary Studies at Utrecht University. She completed her B.A. in English Literature at Boğaziçi University and had a double major in Philosophy. Her literary passion lies in the tension between disturbance and fascination that emerges from the narrational games played on language.


Works Cited

  • Acker, Kathy. Great Expectations. Penguin Classics, 2018.
  • –––. “Seeing Gender.” Critical Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 4, 1995, pp. 78–86.
  • Friedman, Ellen G., and Kathy Acker. “A Conversation with Kathy Acker.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 9, no. 3, 1989, n.p.
  • McCaffery, Larry, and Kathy Acker. “An Interview with Kathy Acker.” Mississippi Review, vol. 20, no. 1/2, University of Southern Mississippi, 1991, pp. 83–97.

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