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New Literary History 33.2 (2002) 357-374

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Relinquish 1 Intellectual Property 2

Lisa Samuels *

"No mind worthy of the name ever reached a conclusion" 3

IIf this 4 essay appears to represent 5 my own original 6 idea, 7 its appearance is 8 undoubtedly false.

Treating verbal ideation—the word 9 —as "property" obstructs unsuspicious dialogue, clogs our minds 10 as we try to delineate static "ideas" we call "ours," 11 and falsifies the circumstances of 12 knowledge. 13


University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Lisa Samuels is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she teaches Poetry and Poetics. She has published numerous poems, essays on poetry and critical reading practices, and two poetry collections, Letters (1996) and The Seven Voices (1998). She also edited and wrote a critical introduction to an annotated reprint of Laura Riding's Anarchism Is Not Enough (2001).


1. Let me start by quoting a slightly altered version of the original essay, long ago relinquished:

Relinquish Intellectual Property

"No mind worthy of the name ever reached a conclusion"

This is an original idea.

That assertion is misleading. Every letter on this keyboard, like every word in this essay, has been and is continuing to be constructed by myriad forces. I'm driven to write this essay because of the obstructions attendant on seeing verbal ideation as "property." In cultural terms, we learn our words and the material for our every idea. Language itself is not "owned." Though our rewrites and insights sometimes have the imaginative penetration of lightning, and though we often call those works and ideas "original," a possessiveness about our own words has at least three negative consequences: it obstructs unparanoid ideational intercourse, clogs our [End Page 357] minds as we strive to delineate the static nature of a particular idea we call "ours," and is false to the circumstances of knowing.

The textual ways we credit each other's writing serve mostly to sustain the right-to-ownership of living idea-holders. In current essays and books, critical citations tend to be most striking (almost old-fashioned, or, alternatively, impressively pedantic) when the author footnotes something further back in time than, say, one hundred years. Yet everything written in the last hundred years builds on what was written in previous hundreds. If intellectual property is transhistorical—and it must be considered so if we really believe in it and want to ensure that every redescriber is credited—shouldn't we credit all the writers who created the thought conditions for a writer of the present? How can we do that?

A colleague once admitted to me that he has a kind of Usucapio attitude towards ideational property. When he was a graduate student discovering Foucault, for example, he footnoted punctiliously whenever his writing reflected Foucault's influence. Now years have passed, and he figures that Foucauldian thought is part of his mind and needn't be acknowledged. Precisely. We consume what we encounter, and it is logically untenable to assert that we are capable of distinguishing a particular idea-source from what lights up in our own minds.

This blurriness is one of the hazards and benefits of working with ideas and words instead of bricks or trees. Our materials require a fluidity of treatment. Over and over again we learn that generative thinking is dynamic. Think of "fuzzy logic," for example, of the thinking we'd like computers to be able to carry out. We profess to be taken with the best that is known and thought (while we interpret that "best" differently, we're still standing for mastery or anti-mastery, or for selective subjectivity, and so Arnold's wise passiveness can stand in for others', as the unattributed allusion to Wordsworth in this last clause of mine ought to show), but in the creation of static objects of thought-property we stymie that process.

We have plenty of opportunity to loosen the bonds of intellectual property, and as the Internet continues to expand and people find new ways to be nervous about their ideational property rights, new visions of those...