Made of steal
Jonathan Lethem lets theater take whatever it likes.
In January 2007, celebrated novelist Jonathan Lethem, of Motherless Brooklyn fame, invited artists of every genre to steal his writing and freely adapt it without fear of legal penalty. Local storefront troupe the Plagiarists took him at his word. Running at the Athenaeum, Promiscuous Stories is their sprawling theatrical pop collage based on the pieces of Lethem’s short fiction he made available online as part of his Promiscuous Materials Project. We e-mailed the New York–based author to ask why the hell he would encourage such a thing.
Time Out Chicago: What inspired your Promiscuous Materials Project?
Jonathan Lethem: I wrote [the essay] “The Ecstasy of Influence” for Harper’s, sort of recommending everyone to abandon their inhibitions against borrowing and repurposing in every art genre. Afterwards, I had this slightly unsatisfied feeling that I hadn’t done quite enough to practice what I was preaching. So I set about stealing other people’s work for a short story called “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” which was published in Conjunctions magazine. And I threw a bunch of my own stuff up on the Web in order to say, “Help yourselves!”
TOC: What has the response been like?
Jonathan Lethem: Musicians and filmmakers jumped in first, and the site itself gives plenty of evidence of their results. A few visual artists followed suit. And then some theater directors and troupes, though none quite so ambitious as the Plagiarists.
TOC: Do we overvalue originality in art?
Jonathan Lethem: We live in a time when the high fences around individual artworks have been exaggerated to an absurd degree, so that notions of their discrete originality, as well as the operations of these artworks as private property, have become wildly disproportionate to our ability to recognize their commonality as cultural discourse, which belongs to everyone. Capitalism is a culprit, for sure.
TOC: Is there any room for true originality anymore in pop culture?
Jonathan Lethem: Originality seems to me to be a matter of sourcing, remixing, reaction, reply. I don’t think there’s any more or any less room for it than there ever was. When we encounter something that stimulates us to a feeling of being amused, enlightened or whatever, it isn’t because we’ve somehow Googled the entire history of cultural expression and determined that, at last, we have encountered something truly original. It’s because the angle of the voice hits us in a fresh way, makes us recognize ourselves and our world.
TOC: But what about academic plagiarism?
Jonathan Lethem: Well, sure, plagiarism exists for every lazy student who opts out of the pleasures of making an essay and cuts-and-pastes one from the Internet instead. And it exists, as a matter of significant moral drudgery, for every professor who catches a student in this act. But that’s so easy to recognize and condemn. The more interesting observation is that for those who do opt into the fascinating activity of making an essay or any other cultural thing, the activity involves them in matters of influence and reference, imitation and originality, citation and buried allusion. It’s all that nuanced stuff which makes it such an uneasy choice to accuse anyone, any other writer or artist, short of the cutting-and-pasting student, of “plagiarism.”
Lethem and the Plagiarists welcome you to pilfer from Promiscuous Stories.