I’m speaking, of course, of cultural cannibalism. The results of it are most apparent in music, where the artists seem to have a keener taste for the “flesh” of their forebears, and have already led to the healthy tradition of sampling that has been driving music industry capitalists and copyrighters mad for decades, but it’s also begun to creep more intentionally into literature, in the work of experimental writers like Susan Howe and Rosemarie Waldrop, for example, or in the more recent and more mainstream literary mashups of the Quirk Classics imprint (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, etcetera). Aside from being good fun and driving some businessmen mad, why would one want to do this?
First off, originality is overrated. The idea of originality is tantalizing, but it’s little more than an egocentric, Romantic illusion. Don’t get me wrong. I love illusions. You might say they’re all we’ve got, but I’m not going to restrict myself to one. That would be downright un-Keatsian of me. I also love the idea of transcending my own ego by submitting myself to the words of another. When I’m wrestling a poem out of a chapter of Moby-Dick, for example, I am intimately honoring and reanimating the past, which is something I generally think Americans could benefit from doing more of.
Most importantly, however, this is the way that culture naturally works. By consciously repurposing or “recycling” the works of others, you are simply making an unconscious process conscious, so you can manipulate it more intentionally. In other words, you’re taking control… not complete control, of course, but control nonetheless. You can now push it to the limits. In the same sense that Renaissance writers had of originality, you can do something “original” now, in a way that is neither naïve nor insincere.
I would also like to point out some broader implications for this. Cannibalization, or consciously incorporating into your body of work the work of others, supports the absolutely crucial collective awareness of the limited and interconnected nature of all our resources, whether cultural or natural. It expands the concept of conservation to include the conservation of concepts themselves.