Maybe he made it up
- The Forger’s Shadow: How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature by Nick Groom
Picador, 351 pp, £20.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 330 37432 X
Postmodernism awards high marks for non-originality. All literary works are made up of recycled bits and pieces of other works, so that, in the words of Harold Bloom, ‘the meaning of a poem is another poem.’ This doctrine of intertextuality is not to be confused with good old-fashioned literary influence. Such influences are mostly conscious and generally sporadic, whereas for Postmodernism it is impossible to open your mouth without quoting. As Roland Barthes and others have pointed out, the phrase ‘I love you’ is always a citation, indeed one of the most shopsoiled citations of all, even when it is sincerely meant. For the romantically inclined, this opens up an ominous gap between experience and expression; but if words are what we are made of – if I can know that what I am feeling is love only because I have language in the first place – the romantic view may need to be modified.
In the beginning, then, was the repetition. My signature is authentic only if it is a reproduction of its previous versions. Postmodernism is entranced by imitation but sets itself sternly against mimesis, or the notion of realist representation, so that what copies reproduce is not the world but other copies, in a ceaseless chain of simulacra. If meaning is a matter of difference, then there could have been no primordial word, since one word already implies another. If language can be said to have been born, Lévi-Strauss reflects, then it must have been born ‘at a stroke’. In any case, as Wittgenstein muses, it is difficult to imagine an origin without feeling that you could always go back beyond it. As the business of looking things up in the dictionary suggests, all words are stand-ins for other words, and all our language is filched and forged, reach-me-down rather than bespoke.
If texts can be translated, then a certain translatability or recycling is constitutive of what they are. And translations can certainly improve on the original, as with the word ‘Vienna’. Similarly, we would not call ‘literary’ a piece of writing which was not somehow portable, more capable than a shout of ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre of being transported from one context to another and interpreted differently each time. In this sense, literary discourse is what it is by virtue of never being quite identical with itself. But the point cuts deeper than literature: we would not call a mark which could happen only once a sign. Language must belong to the Other – to my linguistic community as a whole – before it can belong to me, so that the self comes to its unique articulation in a medium which is always at some level indifferent to it.
Who, then, wrote the first poem? If poetry, like potholing, is a practice governed by certain public conventions, then surely those conventions had to be always already in place for a piece of writing to be identifiable as a poem. I might furtively conceal some dreadful doggerel of mine from public view, but unless it was in principle accessible to others I could not speak of it as a poem at all, even a lousy one. With regard to origins, literary and social conventions are rather like the laws of physics. The mystery of the Universe’s origins is not so much how, pace King Lear, something could have come of nothing, since a random fluctuation in a quantum field might have popped an inflatable particle into fleeting existence, but rather where the quantum field itself might have come from. Or is to raise such a question merely to confuse different language games, modelling a quantum field on a material entity?
Vol. 24 No. 12 · 27 June 2002
From Christopher Prendergast
I wonder how Terry Eagleton’s argument on the topic of forgery, counterfeiting and plagiarism (LRB, 6 June) would stand to the intriguing case of the currency-artist, J.S.G. Boggs. Some fifteen years ago, Boggs produced a series of facsimiles of the US dollar in various denominations but on one side of the paper only. He then used them to trade, not as pretend legal tender but as works of art, in exchange for goods and services to the value represented on the bits of paper. A work of art representing a $100 bill was ‘spent’ for one hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise (there was a further complication when ‘change’ was required). Subsequently, he upped the ante with what he called the ‘Pittsburgh Project’. This involved producing a new edition of his partial facsimiles and then laser-copying them to the tune of a million dollars’ worth, with a view to putting them into limited circulation; they could be used by their original ‘purchaser’ to purchase goods and services in turn, and so on. He also added a design on the back of the ‘bills’ consisting of five circles, in which the new purchasers were to place their thumbprint as a mark of ownership. The ‘bills’ could thus change hands up to five times.
Clearly, Boggs’s creations were neither forged nor counterfeit banknotes, and at no point did he ever seek to pass them off as legal currency. This did not prevent the US Treasury, Secret Service and IRS from hitting the panic-buttons. They saw very clearly the potential threat to the fiduciary foundations of a monetary system (the sort of thing that obsessed those reluctant to leave the Gold Standard in Keynes’s time). Since Boggs had done nothing illegal, they could not arrest him. He was, however, subjected to surveillance, raids, confiscations and harassments. Once again, he turned the screw tighter, making a new $10 bill with a representation of the Supreme Court on the back (the ‘Supreme Court ten’). Citing the example of the Irish writers who forged literary ‘originals’ in order to discredit English writers by claiming their works were derivatives of the mythical originals, Eagleton claims that in the matter of forgery there is often a politics of origin, authenticity and identity. But this seems small beer compared with the provocative challenge to the authority of the state engineered by Boggs. The Irish forgers could always be exposed: in Boggs’s case, there was nothing to ‘expose’ – everything was, so to speak, above board.
King’s College, Cambridge
From Nick Groom
Terry Eagleton is correct when he claims to have written my book The Forger's Shadow on my behalf. I should know – I wrote his review.
University of Bristol
Vol. 24 No. 14 · 25 July 2002
From Nick Groom
Christopher Prendergast (Letters, 27 June) asks whether the currency-artist J.S.G. Boggs can be thought of as a counterfeiter or a forger, since, in his work, everything is, ‘so to speak, above board’. Despite this, he has been arrested twice, and is currently embroiled in a protracted legal battle. In 1986, Boggs was arrested in England under Section 18 of the 1981 Forgery and Counterfeiting Act. The US Secret Service declined to join the Bank of England in the prosecution and Boggs was eventually acquitted by a jury in 1987. He was arrested again in Australia in 1989 by the Federal Currency Squad; when the case came to court it was thrown out and he received $20,000 damages. When the US Secret Service raided his studio in the early 1990s, Boggs filed a civil suit, and then appealed when the judgment found partially in favour of the Secret Service. The case continues and commentators believe it will reach the Supreme Court, not least because Boggs is paying his lawyers in Boggs bills he is printing himself. These bills are artistic forgeries which make use of certain generic and economic traits rather than counterfeits; they are originals, not copies. A Boggs piece rarely consists simply of the redesigned note. He performs transactions as part of his artwork, and has used his bills and more recently plastic coins to buy hamburgers, a Harley-Davidson, even gold bullion. The artworks become composite pieces, consisting of the Boggs bill, the transaction, the item purchased, the receipt for goods or services, any change and so on, and aspiring collectors are invited to recover as many of these constituent parts as they can. Boggs dismantles the illusion that authenticity is an inherent quality in an object such as a five-pound note or ten-dollar bill; it is rather a supposition briefly shared by buyer and seller – the convention of a certain economic genre. Boggs is mimicking this genre.
University of Bristol