Capitalism and Textual Duplication


‘Artists are replicants who have found the secret of their obsolescence.’ (Brian Massumi)

2The critical reception to British writer Iain Sinclair’s most recent novel Dining on Stones (or, the Middle Ground) frequently focused on the British writer’s predilection for intertextual quotation and allusion, and more specifically, on his proclivity for integrating material from his own backlist. A survey of Dining on Stones reveals the following textual duplication: an entire short story, “View from My Window”, which was published in 2003; excerpts from a 2002 collection of poetry and prose, White Goods; material from his 1999 collaboration with artist Rachel Lichtenstein, Rodinsky’s Room; a paragraph lifted from Dark Lanthorns: Rodinsky’s A to Z, also from 1999; and scenes from 1971’s The Kodak Mantra Diaries. Moreover, the name of the narrator, Andrew Norton, is copied from an earlier Sinclair work, Slow Chocolate Autopsy. Of the six aforementioned inter-texts, only Rodinsky’s Room has had wide commercial release. The remainder are small press publications, often limited edition, difficult to find and read, which leads to the charge that Sinclair is relying on the inaccessibility of earlier texts to obscure his acts of autoplagiarism in the mass market Dining on Stones. Whatever Sinclair’s motives, his textual methodology locates a point of departure for an interrogation of textual doubling within the context of late era capitalism.

3At first approximation, Dining on Stones appears to belong to a postmodern literature which treats a text’s confluence, or dissonance of innumerable signifiers and systems of signification as axiomatic and intra-textually draws attention to this circumstance. Thematically, the heteroglot narrative of Dining on Stones frequently returns to the duplication of textual material. The book’s primary narrator is haunted by doubles, not least because Andrew Norton periodically functions as a textual doppelganger for Sinclair. Norton’s biography constitutes a cut-up of episodes copied from Sinclair’s personal history and experience as it is presented in his non-fiction and quasi-autobiographical poetry and prose like Lights Out for the Territory and London Orbital. Like his creator, Norton is ontologically troubled by a fetch, or two, who may or may not be the products of his writer’s imagination. He claims that someone is ‘stealing my material. He impersonated me with a flair I couldn’t hope to equal, this thief. Trickster.’ (218) A ‘disturbing’ encounter with ‘Grays’, an uncannily familiar short story by another writer Marina Fountain, reveals a second textual poacher copying Norton’s work.


She hadn’t written it without help, obviously. The tone was masculine, sure of itself, its pretensions; grammatically suspect, lexicologically challenged, topographically slapdash. A slash-and-burn stylist. But haunted: by missing fathers – Bram Stoker, S. Freud and Joseph Conrad. Clunky hints… about writing and stalking, literary bloodsucking, gender, disguise. … But it was the Conrad aspect that pricked me. Fountain had somehow got wind of my researched (incomplete, unpublished) essay on Conrad in Hackney. Her exaggerated prose, its shotgun sarcasm, jump-cuts, psychotic syntax, was an offensive parody of a manner of composition I’d left behind. (167)

5When ‘Grays’ is later reprinted in full in the novel (141-65), it is a renamed double of a previous Sinclair piece, ‘In Train for the Estuary’ (Sinclair, White Goods, 57-75). This doubling is replicated with another Sinclair story ‘View from My Window’ also being attributed to Fountain (313-341). Neither the style, nor the content of Sinclair’s previous works have been discarded: they have been reproduced and incorporated in Dining on Stones’ retrospective of Sinclair’s earlier work. Thus, Norton’s review of Fountain’s writing as ‘a manner of composition I’d left behind’ doubles as Sinclair’s self-conscious recognition of the text as an artefact produced from diverse inter-texts – including his own.

6In contrast to Sinclair’s dialogic doubling, Fountain’s double is of a monologic disposition. It is mechanical ‘echopraxis,’ a neologism coined in Dining on Stones which is defined as the ‘mindless repetition of another person’s moves and gestures.’ (192) Its mercenary dimension, enacted without regard for the integrity of the inter-text, is underscored with the epithet ‘slash-and-burn stylist.’ The monologic double possesses the text, drains it of its vitality. It entails necrosis, mortification. Fountain’s appropriation of Norton’s story is close to Fredric Jameson’s characterisation of pastiche which, he says, shuts down communication between texts (202). For Jameson, pastiche is the exemplary postmodern literary ‘style’. It is inert, static, a textual aporia. Jameson’s verdict is harsh: pastiche is cannibalism, text devouring text with an appetite that corresponds to the cupidity of consumer culture. Textual cannibalism vanquishes dialogism. It is the negation of the textual Other because cannibalism is only possible when the Other no longer exists.

7So how does Sinclair distinguish his doubling of his own text from Fountain’s monologic doubling as it is depicted in the novel’s narrative? A clue can be detected in one of the stories stolen by Fountain. ‘In Train for the Estuary’ is a re-writing of Dracula, and takes its cue from Karl Marx’s famous analogy between capitalism and vampirism: ‘capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’ (342) Sinclair’s vampire doubles as an academic (or is it the other way round?) who obsessively and compulsively stalks her quarry/object of study, Joseph Conrad.


First, she had learnt Polish. Then she tracked down the letters and initiated the slow, painstaking, much-revised process of translation. She travelled. Validated herself. Being alone in an unknown city, visiting libraries, enduring and enjoying bureaucratic obfuscation, sitting in bars, going to the cinema, allowed her to try on a new identity. She initiated correspondence with people she never met. She lied. She stole from Conrad. (Sinclair, White Goods, 58)

9The woman’s identity is leeched from the work of Conrad. Sinclair describes unethical activity in appropriating text: lying, stealing, sucking the blood from the corpus of Conrad. A compulsive need to maintain the ‘validation’ of this poached identity emerges, manifesting itself as addiction. The addict is an extreme embodiment of the (ir)rationality of consumption: consumed by the need to consume. The woman’s lust for text is commensurate with the twin desires—blood and real estate—of her precursor, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Sinclair’s narrative of addiction doubles as a meta-critique on the compulsive desire to reproduce text and image that characterizes postmodern textualities as well as the apparatuses that produce them.

10The textual doubling in Dining on Stones, which is published by the multinational Penguin, seems to enact a reterritorialisation of a deterritorialised minor literature. However, Sinclair’s allegorical rewriting of the vampire legend and its subsequent inclusion in the mainstream novel’s narrative, reveal that capitalism’s doubles are simulacra in the Aristotelian sense because they are copies for which there is no original. The ostensible ‘original’ is the product of different material conditions and thus cannot be duplicated by the machinery of capitalism. The capitalist reproduction of text produced within an alternative cultural economy is an uncanny double (with an infinite capacity to be doubled over and over again) whose existence, like that of Sinclair’s academic in White Goods, is parasitical. The capitalist simulacrum necessitates that the original be destroyed, or at the very least, theorised out of existence so that restrictions based on its own premise of individual property rights can be circumvented.

11Postmodernism’s attendant theory is an over-determined repetition of poststructuralist tenets such as the instability of texts, the polysemous signifier and the impossibility of self as empirical subject. Images and meaning are no longer anchored, and free to be reproduced. Paradoxically, this proliferation of signification has the effect of constricting the originary text, compressing it under the burden of competing meanings, so that it is almost undetectable. Writes Brian Massumi (doubling Jean Baudrillard), ‘postmodernism stutters. In the absence of any gravitational pull to ground them, images accelerate and tend to run together. They become interchangeable. Any term can be substituted for any other: utter indetermination.’ The postmodern project’s effacement of the centred subject and the self has as its consequence, according to Jameson, a ‘waning of affect’ which is superseded ‘by a peculiar kind of euphoria.’ (200) The euphoria to which Jameson refers is not that of the poststructuralist textasy. Instead, it is postmodernism’s return to the idealism of Hegelian dialects, a euphoria achieved from the fusion of contradictions. Postmodernism’s doubles are a utopian attempt to synthesize antinomy and unity in a simultaneity that assimilates the fragmentation of modernity and the modern subject, with the cohesion of the commodity and its closed system of cultural logic. As such, the postmodern double is a rejection of modernist engagements with technical reproducibility. Modernism’s literary assemblages are, in Victor Shlovsky’s words, the laying bare of the device, an exposition of the seams through techniques such as collage, bricolage and montage. These linguistic (and at times visual) conjunctures of disparate elements do not attempt to elide material and thematic disjuncture. As Walter Benjamin stresses, this type of textual methodology has the potential, through the disruption of spatial and temporal logic and the creation of anachrony, to rupture the linear representations and formations of order favoured by capitalist political economies (Benjamin, ‘On the concept of history’).

12Postmodernism, which doubles (following Jameson’s formulation) as the cultural logic of late capitalism, reiterates that texts can be undone, and then reassembled, rearticulated anew, rendered useful to a commodity culture over and over again. Consequently, postmodernism’s copies are analogous, at the level of cultural production, to capitalism’s ceaseless appropriation of discourse, practice, and production. This is the alchemical project of capitalism. It strives to transform everything that it has doubled into the gold of the commodity. The inherent dangers of unrestrained reproduction are for Jameson exemplified in the treatment of Van Gogh’s Pair of Shoes (1885):


If this copiously reproduced image is not to sink to the level of sheer decoration, it requires us to reconstruct some initial situation out of which the finished work emerges. Unless that situation—which has vanished into the past—is somehow mentally restored, the painting will remain an inert object, a reified end-product, and be unable to be grasped as a symbolic act in its own right, as praxis and as production. (194)

14Jameson’s reading of Van Gogh’s shoes reminds us of the fate of Alberto Korda’s 1960 photograph of revolutionary Che Guevara. Appropriated by the media, inscribed on T-shirts, mugs, even door mats, Che’s portrait is an emblem of the degradation Jameson describes. Like Van Gogh’s painting, Korda’s photograph was once a ‘symbolic act in its own right, as praxis and as production,’ saturated with the potential and spirit of revolution. Over time, the iconic image has leaked meaning. The signifying chain that anchored it to its original significance is broken each time it is reproduced and decontextualised through the process of commodification, until Che’s image is unrecognisable, a mere ornament.

15Refuting Benjamin’s concerns in ‘The Work of Art in its Age of Technical Reproducibility’ postmodern theory argues that technologies enabling reproducibility have led to a democratisation of text and textual production, and by extension, have liberated the multitude from a hierarchy of value that privileges the singular. Mass reproduction and the accompanying pressure for texts to be accessible results in altered attitudes regarding the preservation of intellectual property rights and ‘fair use’. In an economy of signs where use-value has become synonymous with exchange-value, then the text which has no exchange value due to it being ‘freely’ available—‘free’ in its double sense, as something exempt from restriction, or cost—can be copied without economic or ethical restraint, without permission. The quotation marks can be scrapped. According to postmodern logic, the double is a transposition with a legitimacy equalling, even rivalling the original. Clearly, Jameson’s lament that postmodernism represents ‘the end of the distinctive individual brushstroke (as symbolized by the emergent primacy of mechanical reproduction)’ cannot escape an association with elitism because technical reproducibility indubitably enables greater access. However, the utility of technologies of reproduction to the capitalist empire of structures and signs cannot be underestimated. It enables the ceaseless reproduction of ideologemes inscribed with the logic of capitalism; in other words, it enables capitalism to reproduce itself relentlessly.

16Postmodern cultural production is self-aware; it acknowledges its role as commodity and reproduces the ideology of the commodity form in its material form. In this manner, it functions as an ideologeme. Sinclair’s doubles cannot be understood according to the schema of postmodernism because he subverts postmodernism’s political and aesthetic symbiosis with capitalism. Moreover, the double in Sinclair travels beyond rehearsing a self-conscious hyphology (Barthes, 39). He defies postmodernism’s occultation of the author through his reiteration of the author’s authority over their own work. In contrast to the reductive manner postmodern texts duplicate other texts, Sinclair’s texts propose a typology of the double which advocates a dialogic duplication. Sinclair’s doubling refuses postmodernism’s return to the idealism of Hegelian dialects, and its synthesis of contradictions in the service of its unified material and aesthetic program: the commodification of literature. Consequently, Dining on Stones’ textual doubling is a critique of the epistemic shift to the monologic double which Jameson claims typifies a large portion of contemporary textual duplication.