Plagiarism for all, not just boring poets!

from the conclusion:

“we begin to find a real alternative to the plagiarism of Nunn and Slattery, and indeed any plagiaristic activity which by merely aping the ideology of the bourgeois ‘atom’ reinforces a false account of all creative activity. The truth is that all creative activity is always collaborative even in its most apparently individual manifestations. No doubt such collaboration can be more or less direct, more or less proximate; but surely when we work through means of a language which is the common elaboration of its speakers both present and past, not to mention the patently social nature of contemporary capitalist productive activity, the concept of plagiarism far from being opaque or confused becomes clear: it is at the heart of all creative practices, whether it is declared or not. The real problem we face then is not the conceptual nuances of plagiarism but rather the practical problems of collaboration, and perhaps the most pressing of all: to openly and freely collaborate on the creation of a truly human society.”

Plagiarism for all, not just boring poets!

‘Culture […] It is the meaning of a world that is barely meaningful.’ — Guy Debord[1]

Recently two poets in Australia, Graham Nunn and Andrew Slattery, have been exposed as plagiarisers of other poets’ work. The arguments that have broken out amongst the small but vocal poetry scenes in the country have predicably resolved into three positions:

(1) Plagiarism is wrong and offensive, in particular to those whose work is plagiarised;

(2) Plagiarism is a legitimate method of creation and has a long history;

(3) A combination of these two positions (e.g. ‘whereas we agree that in the case of Nunn and Slattery that the plagiarism was wrong, we are not opposed to the open and public use of plagiaristic methods’).

My immediate sympathies lie with the third position; however I believe that the only way to resolve the apparent contradiction of this position is to more consistently embrace the second position, i.e. to defend plagiarism in all cases. And hopefully, as I will show, the plagiarism committed by Nunn and Slattery is not only the least interesting and most conservative type of plagiarism, but is in many respects the very opposite of the open plagiarism that is the only consistent way to practice plagiarism given the prevalence of capitalist norms of property.

Which is why Justin Clemens’ attempt to unravel the issues surrounding the cases of Nunn and Slattery is so disappointing. In a piece for the Overland blog, ‘Of borrow’d plumes I take the sin’: plagiarism and poetry, Clemens embraces a reactionary position of moral opprobrium (effectively: plagiarism is wrong, ok), while trying to pass off his piece as a more nuanced critical examination. Unfortunately his argument tends towards incoherence and ends with no clear resolution — indeed he implicitly admits defeat in accepting that there can be no resolution. As we will see Clemens finds the position that I advocate, i.e. to openly use a plagiaristic method in poetry and indeed in all cultural and practical endeavours, as both ‘crassly Cartesian’ and ultimately mistaken regarding the nature of plagiarism itself.

In order to get to grips with the so-called ‘problem’ of plagiarism I propose that we proceed along the following lines: first, examine Justin Clemens argument against plagiarism in order to demonstrate both its incoherence and patent inability to distinguish between plagiarism which supports capitalist property norms (such as Nunn’s and Slattery’s) and plagiarism that challenges capitalist property norms; secondly, outline the Situationist International’s critique of capitalist culture and their critical method of open plagiarism known as ‘détournement’ as a clear instance of plagiarism which challenges capitalist property norms; and finally examine the particular cases of Nunn and Slattery in order to show why they are instances of plagiarism in support of capitalist property norms that should be rejected in favour of the superior option of plagiarism that challenges capitalist property norms.

1. The incoherence of Justin Clemens

The guts of Clemens critical appraisal of plagiarism is to be found in the last few paragraphs of his article. We can break these down into two ways. First the paragraph in which he condemns the advocacy of plagiarism, and secondly his concluding argument in which he attempts to assay the ‘deep conceptual problem’ of plagiarism.

Here’s Clemens’ paragraph that condemns plagiarism:

Here’s [Kenneth] Goldsmith, twittering at Lightman: ‘Plagiarism is not a problem. The problem is not openly admitting that you’re a plagiarist.’ While this is perhaps partially true – for reasons I’ll shortly go into – it’s mainly not. Why? First, because plagiarism IS a problem: not simply an administrative problem for which we can find a solution, but a deep conceptual problem which cannot simply be wished away. Second, what’s the word ‘openly’ doing here? Is Goldsmith really as crassly Cartesian as this makes him sound? After all, one key issue of plagiarism is that it redistributes and complicates the very relationship between ‘closed’ and ‘open’, or ‘secret’ and ‘open’, etc. There’s no simple way to be ‘open’ about plagiarism without misunderstanding what it is. Finally, and most seriously, why is it somehow OK to admit to stealing? Does it not make it stealing if you say you’re doing it? This is surely Yankee free-market imperialism at its most self-deluded and self-righteous. After all, isn’t it so George Washington to do a bad thing and then get some kind of moral kudos by confessing to it? Goldsmith’s is not then the radical détournement of the Situationists’ subversive unoriginality (btw I’ve nicked this phrase from a number of authors) which seeks to undermine the constitutional inequities of the international IP system, but that which epitomises the prime injustice perpetrated by the plagiarist: like a corporation patenting a gene, a plagiarist takes a named, known environmental function – and acts as if it’s his, laughing all the way to the tenured academic bank.

Unfortunately Clemens never establishes clearly why plagiarism is a ‘deep conceptual problem’. His conclusion here is simply that plagiarism is wrong because it is theft. When he does turn to dealing with what he terms the ‘contradictions’ of the various positions on plagiarism, he not only does nothing to assess whether or not we should opt for any or all of the varying positions, but perhaps worse he is unable to either firmly hold to his position (i.e. that plagiarism is theft and therefore wrong), or even justify the truth of his position. I would hazard to say, considering the snide insult directed at Goldsmith of being ‘crassly Cartesian’, that Clemens is unable to either be clear or justify the truth of his claim when he is clear (i.e. that plagiarism is theft and therefore wrong), because he is a victim of the suffocating dominance of postmodernist ‘cultural studies’ and their cult of incoherence.  Sadly this does not distinguish him from many of our contemporaries.

However, pace Goldsmith’s ‘crass Cartesianism’, why can’t we pose the possibility of ‘open plagiarism’? Indeed the Situationists proposed just such a method and practice, which Clemens seems to acknowledge albeit confusedly and half-heartedly when he writes:

[Kenneth] Goldsmith’s is not then the radical détournement of the Situationists’ subversive unoriginality […] which seeks to undermine the constitutional inequities of the international IP system.

However the Situationists, in describing their method of détournement, explicitly referred to it as plagiarism. By doing so they were merely developing the insight of one of their radical predecessors, Isidore Ducasse (aka the Comte de Lautréamont).[2] Certainly Clemens is right to distinguish the Situationist practice of plagiarism, aimed as it was against capitalist copyright and capitalist property of all forms, from the practice of plagiarism that merely reinforces such norms of property. So when he baldly states ‘[t]here’s no simple way to be “open” about plagiarism without misunderstanding what it is’, Clemens is simply wrong, and egregiously so because he cites the Situationists as just such a case of open plagiarism. The obvious conclusion, which we can even derive from Clemens confusion, is that we can distinguish between those acts of plagiarism that support and even reinforce capitalist norms of property (like that practiced by Nunn and Slattery), and acts of plagiarism such as that made on the basis of the Situationists theory of détournement.

Perhaps more strange than Clemens misunderstanding of the Situationists’ détournement is his apparent belief that not only is the plagiarist akin to ‘a corporation patenting a gene, […] laughing all the way to the tenured academic bank’, but that it is NOT ‘OK’ to admit to stealing because to do so is again similar to ‘Yankee free-market imperialism at its most self-deluded and self-righteous’. These are indeed bizarre analogies, which seem designed to smear the plagiarist by association rather than logical argument.

When Karl Marx outlined his critique of the extraction of surplus-value he was careful to demonstrate that the capitalist did not engage in theft, at least in terms of the norms of capitalist property. According to Marx the capitalist buys the labour-power, which is the individual’s capacity to labour, through the wage contract. However Marx moves on to unveil the deeper truth of this contract. For Marx the ultimate truth of the profits capitalists’ derive from the process of production and the circulation and sale of goods is that that they extract more value — surplus-value — from the workers’ labour than what they pay for this labour through the wage contract. Though perfectly legal in the context of capitalist norms of property, Marx’s analysis was made to demonstrate that in fact not only does the capitalist effectively steal his profit from the labour of others, but the general process of capitalist production and exchange steals the lives of the working classes in the interest of capitalist accumulation and profit. In an evocative image Marx writes that ‘Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’[3]

The point of this illustration is to demonstrate that whereas the theft of the capitalist is simultaneously real though disguised by legal norms, the opposition to such legalised theft is also real and disguised (as, respectively, reappropriation and theft).[4] Our stealing back from the capitalist maybe righteous and justified, but it is theft nonetheless given the context. And indeed the only reasonable position to take given the prevalence of capitalist property norms and everything they entail is to support and recommend theft (i.e. reappropriation) as one weapon amongst an arsenal directed at the end of capitalist rule.

If we were to be ungenerous to Clemens we could accuse him of a type of intellectual exceptionalism; certainly it is my belief that such a perspective is implied in his argument. For instance Clemens by analogy associates instances of cultural plagiarism with the intellectual property rights of corporations. However Clemens appears to be unaware that he is arguing that property rights for corporations are ‘wrong’ whereas for individuals engaged in intellectual production they are ‘right’. On the surface such an argument is attractive and certainly I do not oppose the attribution of authorship, etc. — indeed I believe such attribution is compatible with my idea of open plagiarism (as we shall see). However as he later points out, such notions as copyright are at best no more than three centuries old and are themselves the result of capitalist norms of property established in 18th and 19th century Europe, rather than derived from so-called ‘natural’ forms of property. So we have a dilemma: on the one hand Clemens wants to condemn the property rights of corporations and on the other he wants to hold on to property rights as a defensive gesture against the exploitation of the individual.

Such a dilemma can be resolved along the following lines. As I have argued we can distinguish between types of plagiarism, i.e. plagiarism that reinforces capitalist property norms and plagiarism that consciously and openly attacks it. The advantage of such a move — remembering our discussion of Marx, the legality of the wage-contract and surplus-value extraction — is that we can further distinguish between types of theft that similarly reinforce capitalist property norms and openly attack such.

So it is simply depressing to see Clemens, after missing the opportunity to clearly distinguish between types of plagiarism (indeed pre-emptively arguing that to do such is to misunderstand the nature of plagiarism), move on to outline different positions of plagiarism in order to incoherently conclude (again pre-emptively!) that ‘nobody really has a clue what it [plagiarism] means’.

After concluding thus he outlines the

[…] four major positions upon plagiarism still current if usually confused or confounded with each other: 1) the legal, 2) the pedagogical, 3) the ontological, and 4) the managerial.

He is certainly on the money describing such as ‘confused’ but he doesn’t do much to lift the veil of confusion. Briefly he describes these positions as, respectively: (1) the legal injunctions of copyright; (2) the ‘pedagogical’ and normative belief that plagiarism is redolent with ‘theft, false work, [and] laziness’ and should be rejected; (3) the so-called ‘ontological position’ that plagiarism is inevitably a part of (presumably) social human practices; and (4) the ‘managerial position’ which appears to be a justification of bureaucratic procedures beloved of the public service and capitalist political life (i.e. politicians giving speeches written by bureaucrat ‘underlings’). Even though his own position appears to draw upon the first and second positions, he does not make this explicit. Worse, he assesses these various ‘positions’ as equally operative and presumably equally valid, which is incredible considering his own position appears to clearly reject the third position, and the fourth position appears to hold an implicit negative critique of political plagiarism — i.e. even the public political arbiters of capitalist property norms rely upon plagiarism!

Thus we return to Clemens pre-emptive conclusion: ‘nobody really has a clue what it means’, least of all Justin Clemens. In a strange and convoluted coda to his non-assessment and missed opportunities, Clemens appears to argue that plagiarism is all about timing:

Anxieties about plagiarism and the temporalisation of knowledge are coterminous facts […] Plagiarism becomes a thought-crime when we need to find a way to linearise information; it is a practice of time. Today, when everything happens everywhere online, all at once, it is no wonder that plagiarism becomes at once omnipresent and unactionable.

Some interesting and suggestive points here, but sadly little more, for Clemens does not tell us what the ‘temporalisation of knowledge’ is, nor why plagiarism is a ‘thought-crime’ (what is a ‘thought-crime’?), or even why it is a ‘practice of time’. More missed opportunities packaged in a succession of terms and phrases more enigmatic than revelatory. And just when we should hope that Clemens can draw his confusing enquiry to a satisfying end, he departs with an anodyne optimism that can only appear Pollyanna-ish:

Yet isn’t it the case that all this says something that nobody wants to admit? These current scandals in poetry confirm that people worldwide still desperately care about poetry despite its absolutely essential irrelevance to any economic indicator you might mention, and that – despite the crazy uproar surrounding the instances of plagiarism – this shows that poetry will continue to enjoy a glorious future yet.

Indeed. But why, why, WHY? What I intend to show is that poetry, and all forms of human practice, can only have a ‘glorious future’ to the extent that they break the norms of capitalist property in order to bring about a society which offers the possibility of creative freedom as opposed to the exclusivity of private property and its concomitant of wage-slavery and mere everyday survival. To better understand and realise such an end let us now turn to an argument for an open, plagiaristic practice, by way of an examination of the Situationist International and their conception of détournement (amongst other things).

2. The Situationists, détournement and the critique of capitalist culture

In 1956 Guy Debord and Gil J Wolman published their article ‘A User’s Guide to Détournement’ in a Belgian surrealist journal called Les Lèvres Nues (The Naked Lips).[5] At the time they were both members of a small avant-garde group called the Lettrist International whose members shortly thereafter helped form the Situationist International (SI).

The theory of détournement played a central role in the life of the SI.[6] However Debord or the SI never claimed to have invented détournement:

Détournement, the reuse of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble, has been a constantly present tendency of the contemporary avant-garde, both before and since the formation of the SI.[7]

Rather they attempted to theorise such a plagiaristic practice in terms of a critique of capitalist society and property, and in particular of using such ‘pre-existing artistic elements’ in an effort to ruin capitalism itself. They differentiated themselves from the merely formal or ‘unconscious or accidental’ practices of détournement which had, by the 1950s, become more widespread in mainstream cultural production (Debord and Wolman noted how advertising in particular had enthusiastically embraced such plagiaristic practices). Crucially détournement was not mere plagiarism of the original, but the ‘the reuse of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble’, i.e. the re-use and even improvement of pre-existing elements in new contexts and put to new uses.

For the SI détournement was the truth of creative practice, whether we consider the formal practices of avant-garde art in the twentieth century, or the longer term history of human creation as a social process.  Certainly the practice of ‘collage’ and the use of ‘found’ objects in the pictorial and literary works of the early 20th century avant-gardes were new techniques made possible by the development of a truly capitalist mass culture (e.g. books, magazines, the cinema, etc.); however such developments were underwritten by the increasingly social nature of mass production and consumption. Thus we find, particularly in the Dada and Surrealist avant-gardes, that the peculiar conditions of modern industrial alienation are simultaneously the source of these new materials and the object of criticism. The possibility of a more creative life beyond the horizon of this capitalistic invasion of everyday life was posed by these avant-gardes — implicitly in their artistic practice and with increasing sophistication via the explicit claim that such practices anticipated a freer creative mode of life.

Debord and the SI’s conception of détournement were, however, different from the mere plagiaristic re-use of culture. In particular they differentiated themselves from those practices that were becoming increasingly prevalent in the 1950s and 60s whose plagiarism was largely free of any explicit critical perspective. In doing so they acknowledged the role of one of the more startling precursors of such a critical plagiarism: Isidore Ducasse, aka the Comte de Lautréamont.

In the 1950s Ducasse’s most well-known work — Les Chants de Maldoror written under the Lautréamont pseudonym and first published in full in 1869 — was ‘revealed’ as being made up in part of ‘plagiarised’ material. Debord and Wolman replied that such attempts to ‘disparage’ Ducasse, and even those who defended his ‘insolent’ plagiarism misunderstood Ducasse’s own public avowal of his method and practice.[8] In his last work, the epigrammatic prose work called Poésies published in 1870 (but effectively forgotten until André Breton rediscovered and republished it in 1919), Ducasse infamously wrote:

Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a role in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.[9]

The bulk of the second part of Poésies is made up of just such plagiarism, or rather ‘corrections’, in which Ducasse weaves together many uncited maxims of Pascal and Vauvenargues. However, more or less subtle changes were introduced into many of his détournements, which Ducasse described as not mere ‘corrections’ but ‘developments’ of the original.[10] Such correction and development was necessary to his argument, considering both his overall objective of presenting a new poetic theory and the particular disagreements he had with Pascal, Vauvenargues, and the other authors he détourned.

Debord and the SI drew attention to the superiority of détournement to that of its pale relative: academic citation. Whereas academic citation relies upon the finished and authoritative idea, détournement is about bringing ideas back into play, hijacking a phrase not so much as to merely repeat (which citation essentially does), but rather to correct and develop ideas in new critical assemblages.

To quote Debord:

Détournement is the opposite of quotation, of the theoretical authority which, by the mere fact of having become a quotation, is always falsified — a fragment torn from its context, from its movement, and finally from the overall reference of its time and from the precise option that it was within this reference, whether recognised exactly or erroneously. [11]

The discomfort of citing Debord is overcome by the attempt to re-use his words in translation precisely in a context that is suitable to them — i.e. in this attempt to present détournement and to defend it as a type of critical plagiarism.

Debord and the SI gave up on the types of artistic détournement that were becoming increasingly popular in the 1950s and 60s. They gave up on these to the extent that such détournement, such plagiarism, renounced the critical correction and development announced by Ducasse in 1870. In the face of a rapidly expanding capitalist market in culture, and the lessons of Dada, Surrealism and in particular the defeated revolutionary workers movement of the pre-war period, the SI posed that the practice of détournement must contest the totalising logic of capitalist commodity relations. A merely artistic critique was not enough; indeed it was threatened by being ghettoised as a ‘radical’ and marketable niche.

Unfortunately a more detailed consideration of the SI‘s critique of merely artistic détournement is beyond the scope of this article and must be left aside for now. Let us now turn to the case of Graham Nunn and Andrew Slattery.

3. The particular case of Graham Nunn and Andrew Slattery

So Andrew Slattery and Graham Nunn have been publically revealed to have engaged in plagiarism. Not only do Nunn and Slattery have a high profile in the Australian poetry scene, but they have also benefited from the largesse of poetry prizes using their plagiarised work. Indeed it was Andrew Slattery’s recent entry in the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize that undid him. Poetry academic Antony Lawrence and Ulrick Prize judge M.T.C. Cronin uncovered Slattery’s plagiarism after the judges had chosen him as the winner for his poem ‘Ransom’, but before he received the $10,000 prize money. And since then he has been revealed as a serial plagiariser. And it’s easy to check his grabs. For instance after short work using Google I found that his poem ‘Grandmother Going Gone’, ‘commended’ by the judges of the 2013 Max Harris National Poetry Award, had some lines lifted from Amy Groshek’s 2011 poem ‘Single Life #18’; others have noted that he also took from Seamus Heaney in the same poem.

Some may find that the Max Harris award is fitting, considering that Harris was successfully hoodwinked by the Ern Malley hoaxers, Douglas Stewart and James McCauley. But despite some loose comparisons with the Ern Malley affair, Slattery’s ‘hoax’ was less interesting and more financially calculated. Whereas Stewart and McCauley wanted to humiliate Max Harris and the modernist artists around the Angry Penguins magazine of the 1940s, Slattery apparently had more a pecuniary interest in mind, not to mention the ‘accolades’ of the Australian poetry cognoscenti. In any case Ern Malley’s poems are more startling in their collaborative composition than anything ‘seriously’ written by Stewart and McCauley alone; indeed these first class poetic bores were shown to be capable of creation despite their intentions while plagiarising army training manuals, Shakespeare and their own poems!

And then there is the case of Graham Nunn. ‘A prominent figure in the Brisbane poetry scene’ he tells us on his website, even though he fails to mention his poetic method amongst the monotonous details of his professional successes. In response to the charge of plagiarism Nunn has written that he ‘creatively appropriated’ others work in order to form a ‘new work’. The problem is that not only does this appear to be Nunn’s first recorded defence of plagiarism as method, but it is only an implicit acknowledgment because he does not admit that it is plagiarism! In a similar if predictable sleight-of-hand Slattery has attempted to justify his plagiarism as examples of the cento form, though he seems to have forgotten that such a method of composition relies upon its public avowal.

However, let us be clear: Graham Nunn, Andrew Slattery, or anyone ‘caught’ plagiarising, whether openly or not, should not be morally censured. It is my belief that such moral censure, apart from being irrational, only reinforces the less than moral principles of bourgeois property that currently rule human society. By indulging in moral censure in such a context we lend an unwarranted legitimacy to notions such as exclusive ownership and intellectual property; notions that — like the society from which they emerged — ultimately draw their validity from the hierarchy of class power. At the very least they should be interrogated with an eye to their historical contingency; at best they should be rejected outright, ideally and ultimately through the practical revolutionising of human social relations.

Nonetheless Andrew Slattery’s and Graham Nunn’s efforts at plagiarism reflect both a poverty of means and the imagination. Both men seem to be motivated more by the desire for public success and/or pecuniary reward than by the radical need to go to the root of the matter. Their plagiarism, disguised as their own product and thus hidden until it was exposed, is practically in opposition to the critical open plagiarism recommended by the Situationists. In both cases the ‘authors’ seem more concerned with a place in the sun of the literary status quo then in challenging either the ‘ghetto’ reality of poetic creation or the increasingly commercial forms that threaten it. Thus it is grimly amusing to read Slattery defend ‘his’ poems and monetary awards in the name of a ‘cynical experiment’. Perhaps he forgot that experimental practices only deserve the name when they are open to criticism and replication; his late admission on being caught out certainly reveals a level of cynicism, but unfortunately nothing experimental in either form or content.

4. Conclusion

In each of the twelve issues of the Situationists’ journal the editors posted the now infamous anti-copyright notice:

All texts published in “Internationale Situationniste” may be freely reproduced, translated and adapted, even without indication of origin.

But what does such a notice mean? In the original version of the notice, published in the first two issues of the journal in 1958, the SI drew attention to the collaborative ‘common research’ of the Situationist project.[12] Such a collaborative practice was at the heart of the SI’s theoretical and practical elaboration until the end. In contrast to the theories of revolutionary transformation such as the Leninist ‘vanguard’ and the ‘gradualism’ of social-democracy, the SI believed that their means anticipated the goal they worked for. Even though they eschewed the idea that their group was a communistic ‘micro-society’, they nonetheless emphasised the collaborative and collective nature of their practice as being explicitly opposed to the ideology of the bourgeois individual.

The importance of such a collaborative practice to the SI must be kept in mind when we consider perhaps the most notorious case of plagiarism that occurred during the group’s existence. In 1962 the noted philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre plagiarised a collaborative SI work on the Paris Commune. In the circular the group issued against Lefebvre they took aim at his decision to publish this work under his own name in a journal called Arguments. For the SI the least issue was Lefebvre’s plagiarism. Rather his choice of journal in which to publish marked an effective end to his collaboration with the SI. Considering the overtly hostile ‘relationship’ that existed between the SI and the editorial committee of Arguments, Lefebvre’s choice and proprietary claims over the SI’s work could only be seen as a provocation at the very least. However in an internal SI document Debord wrote:

Even Lefebvre, when he is so inspired by us, doesn’t ‘exploit’ our work. He is simply a bit inelegant on the intellectual plane, because he retreated from a communal action (true dialogue) with us. And that is what is serious.[13]

Here we begin to find a real alternative to the plagiarism of Nunn and Slattery, and indeed any plagiaristic activity which by merely aping the ideology of the bourgeois ‘atom’ reinforces a false account of all creative activity. The truth is that all creative activity is always collaborative even in its most apparently individual manifestations. No doubt such collaboration can be more or less direct, more or less proximate; but surely when we work through means of a language which is the common elaboration of its speakers both present and past, not to mention the patently social nature of contemporary capitalist productive activity, the concept of plagiarism far from being opaque or confused becomes clear: it is at the heart of all creative practices, whether it is declared or not. The real problem we face then is not the conceptual nuances of plagiarism but rather the practical problems of collaboration, and perhaps the most pressing of all: to openly and freely collaborate on the creation of a truly human society.

Anthony Hayes

Canberra, October 2013


[1] Guy Debord. La Société du Spectacle. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, [1967] 1992, Thesis 183, p. 179. Also available in translation here:

[2] ‘Détournement, which Lautréamont called plagiarism, confirms the thesis, long demonstrated by modern art, that word are insubordinate, that it is impossible for power to totally coopt created meanings, to fix an existing meaning once and for all.’ Mustapha Khayati. ‘Captive Words: Preface to a Situationist Dictionary’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 10, March 1966, translated by Ken Knabb, available here:

[3] Karl Marx. Capital, volume 1. From Chapter 10: The Working Day, Section 1: The Limits Of The Working-Day, available here:

[4] Indeed we can write, analogously, ‘essence’ and ‘appearance’ for ‘real’ and ‘disguised’, noting Marx’s use of these terms in their Hegelian sense of the phenomenal appearance of the essence of a thing.

[5] Guy Debord & Gil J. Wolman. ‘A User’s Guide to Détournement’ [1956] in Les Lèvres Nues #8 (May 1956). Translated by Ken Knabb and available here:

[6] The meaning of ‘détournement’ is derived from the French verb ‘détourner’ which can mean ‘to divert’, ‘to detour’ or ‘to hijack’.  We will follow here the now common practice of Anglicising the French noun and verb in order to accommodate the specific and technical sense the SI gave to this common French word. Thus we can speak respectively of ‘détournement’ and ‘to détourn’.

[7] Situationist International. ‘Détournement as Negation and Prelude’ [1959] in Internationale Situationniste no. 3, December 1959. Translated by Ken Knabb and available here:

[8] Debord & Wolman 1956

[9] Isidore Ducasse. ‘Poésies II’ [1870] in Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, Translated by Alexis Lykiard, Cambridge Mass.: Exact Change, 1994, p. 240. Translation modified.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Debord [1967] 1992: Thesis 208, p. 199.

[12] Cf. Internationale situationniste no 1, June 1958, and no.2, December 1958.

[13] Guy Debord. ‘Notes on Coherence’ [1963], in Oeuvres Completes, Gallimard, 2006. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! January 2010. Available at:

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19 Responses to Plagiarism for all, not just boring poets!

  1. antyphayes says:

    Reblogged this on works & days.

  2. Grant McDonagh says:

    Thanks mate. Plagiarising part of this for my poetry/cutup zine LUCA. Where can I send u a copy? Grant

    • geraldkeaney says:

      Poetry zine sounds like a great idea, but the problem with cutting something like this up is that you may well lose the thread of the extremely compelling argument that open plagiarism is possible, and is exactly what careerists like Nunn don’t get. Its stuff that’s already meandering that benefits most from a good brisk cut up.

  3. Anthony Lawrence says:

    I’m about to start plagiarising myself, as I have been seriously neglecting the early work. I know I won’t mind. I hardly recognise the young bloke who wrote those poems. I will cento myself into a position I could never achieve in the gym.

  4. Reblogged this on Ghosts and ashes and commented:
    Poetry and plagiarism has been a big topic in Australia recently. To quote myself, poets must be warriors again…

  5. Amy Groshek says:

    I read about Slattery months ago, and actually went back and revised a manuscript to add extensive citations, to be sure that my allusions would not be seen as plagiarism. Now it turns out that I was one of those plagiarized. I never imagined he would steal from no-name poets as well as established ones. I don’t even have a full-length book. It is very difficult to build a career and establish oneself as a poet. In my opinion it is a particularly egregious abuse of power to steal from poets who are not themselves successful or established.

    • antyphayes says:

      Amy, I sympathise with your feelings regarding being ripped off by an “established” poet. However the best way to solve this apparent “problem” is to not only make plagiarism more open, but to recognise plagiaristic methods as central to creative practice. Academics like to call this “citation”, but citation is by far one of the least interesting uses of plagiaristic methods. A better solution to the suggestions of such as Ira Lightman, Anthony Lawrence and co, whose only answer appears to be a type of police activity that admits from the outset that it cannot really solve the “problem”, is to accept that not only is plagiarism endemic, but plagiaristic methods are not a problem at all. Certainly they can appear to be a problem when used by such as Graham Nunn and others as ways to protect their privileged access to publishing outlets, grants, personal fame and other benefits of the established scene; however what I am suggesting is a more radical practice that rejects the hierarchical structures of the established poetry scene as much as it rejects these structures throughout capitalist society more generally.

      Perhaps what is most egregious here is that any creative activity, poetic or otherwise, can be harnessed for purely self-interested ends. A better alternative is to work for the collective and collaborative control of our everyday life, a truly grand poetic and creative endeavour, beyond the dictates of money and profit. Which is to say beyond the idea that any one person can possess an idea or product to the exclusion of all others.

      • Amy Groshek says:

        A better alternative is to work for the collective and collaborative control of our everyday life, a truly grand poetic and creative endeavour, beyond the dictates of money and profit. Which is to say beyond the idea that any one person can possess an idea or product to the exclusion of all others.

        I might agree with you if I thought that the Slattery poem in which my lines appear was any good, and especially if I thought it better than the original. Unfortunately, it’s an old suitcase cluttered with the stickers of others’ poems. It lacks polish and is, in my opinion, not an enjoyable read. I guess that’s what happens when you try to make the lines of several disparate poets fit logically together. It’s worth considering that art created from within the assumptions of a proprietary culture will resist transmutation into more communal modes. The use-value of communal forms of poetry is, after all, quite different and so, therefore, is the aesthetic.

        In an ideal world, certainly, creative activity would not be tied to perks like publication and academic employment. But that cannot change without a complete restructuring of the world economy. In my opinion, when it comes to plagiarism, it’s best—regardless of our shallow, property-obsessed economic circumstances—to follow the old maxim, and “Don’t be a d$%#.”

        • antyphayes says:

          Hi Amy, thanks for the reply. There is little I disagree with in your comments. Indeed I made a similar comments regarding Andrew Slattery’s plagiarism in an article for Overland:
          ‘Slattery’s work appears to have required more finesse [than Nunn’s plagiarism], often drawing on multiple sources in order to construct new poems. Nonetheless, he produced curiously flat pieces: his juxtaposition of so many poetic fragments is overwhelmed by the absence of an overarching coherence. Yet he won awards, and this is what appears to have mattered both to Slattery and many of his critics.’
          I also point out Slattery’s plagiarism of your work in the above article. However, and despite agreeing with your assessment of his ‘old suitcase’ of a poem, I have no interest in morale censure. Certainly what is most sad about Slattery, Nunn and their ilk is that their theft is paradoxically made in aid of the very order which defends such stupidities as ‘intellectual copyright’ and private property more generally. Nunn and Slattery never wanted to tear down this order; they wanted ‘in”! One wonders just how much ‘theft’ is an ordinary part of the standard operating practice of those that aspire to the dizzy heights of fame and fortune in the capitalist world (not to mention those that have gotten to the ‘top’, as it were). Still, the problem for me isn’t theft so much as their bullshit defense of their ‘genius’ or ‘talent’ and any supposed property rights that are supposed to flow from such.
          I believe that if Slattery et al. had a different perspective, if they seriously challenged the order of property and exclusive rights, and shouted this to the world, then their work might be of more interest too. Might be.

  6. Anthony Lawrence says:

    “Nonetheless Andrew Slattery’s and Graham Nunn’s efforts at plagiarism reflect both a poverty of means and the imagination. ”

    After wading through this dense, self-aware, philosophically-heavy and academically burdened critique of Slattery’s & Nunn’s plagiarism, the above quote is the only thing I wanted to preserve. The rest was painting with muddy pigments and a moulting brush.

    • antyphayes says:

      It is good to see that it only took you three months to finally read my critique of plagiarism. And considering that you have moved in this three months from rhetorically jabbering without engaging with my argument in the slightest to hailing one of its conclusions, perhaps we will witness your transformation over the next few into my most sincerest of advocates.

      • Anthony Lawrence says:

        Your arguments are confused, and in part read as lame apologies for the theft of another’s hard-won work. I’m not interested in other forms of plagiarism – the main reason poets steal from others is because they don’t have the raw ability and talent and insight to produced original work that arrests the inner attention of themselves or a reader. There is a sociopathology at work with most serial plagiarists. . You can write what you like and dress it in the rags of the academy (as john kinsella does, ad nauseum) but in the end, this whole sad spectacle comes down to one thing. theft.

        • antyphayes says:

          Which arguments are confused? And how are they lame apologies for theft? Honestly, Dr Lawrence (methinks I detect another self-loathing academic), if you can’t substantiate your blather and empty invective then don’t even bother with your lame “contributions” to what is a serious argument.

          • Anthony Lawrence says:

            I can’t be bothered with academics who write with a self-congratulatory, emotionally barren tone and assume that using a scatter-gun approach to philosophy and sociology is going to strike an enduring, resonant note with readers. Not this one, and I’ll wager many more. I might have a Dr before my name, but in no way does it define me. Clearly it defines the thinking and writing of many. Very sadly. It’s boring.

  7. Anthony Lawrence says:

    Im not an academic, I’m a writer who only came to this line of work after thirty years of writing poetry full time – I love teaching Poetics and Creative Writing. It’s a great job, but if I were to use your approach, I’d send the lecture theatre to sleep and lose 3/4 of students in the first 2 weeks.

    • antyphayes says:

      Phew, I hit a raw nerve there! Like I said earlier, how about something substantive to say against or even about my argument? Until you can provide something more than your droll insults and self-aggrandizing employment resumes I will hold off replying to any more of such drivel.

  8. Anthony Lawrence says:

    It’s not a competition. You write from and for the academy. I write from a different place. I don’t have an audience in mind. The only reason I work as an academic is because its good money for giving back what Ive been doing for many years, not because I want to hone and showcase my intellectual skills with prescriptive academic-style language. The raw nerve is yours. Cauterize it.
    Only one of us would use the word ‘capitalist’ thirty five (!!!) times, ‘situationist’ fifteen times, ‘norms’ seventeen times, ‘explicit’ five times, i’positions’ nine times, and more, in one short piece. Is there an editor in the house?

    “What I intend to show is that poetry, and all forms of human practice, can only have a ‘glorious future’ to the extent that they break the norms of capitalist property in order to bring about a society which offers the possibility of creative freedom as opposed to the exclusivity of private property and its concomitant of wage-slavery and mere everyday survival. ”

    What complete and utter nonsense. Creative freedom = imagination. You really need to get out more.

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