On Pinking the Commons

By Carolyn Sale

Issue 2.2 | October 1, 2011

Caren Irr. Pink Pirates: Contemporary American Women Writers and Copyright. University of Iowa Press, 2010. 214 pp.

Straddling a quarter-century between Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes (1999), Caren Irr’s Pink Pirates: Contemporary American Women Writers and Copyright (2010) has an exciting premise: it proposes to read the work of four novelists — Le Guin, Silko, Kathy Acker, and Andrea K. Barrett —in relation to select copyright or intellectual property cases to show how, by “darting back and forth across lines drawn by the law” (2), these writers “advance a critique of property and provide a glimpse of an actually existing commons” (2). There is no actual copyright piracy here — none of these writers has lifted a text in such a way that she has landed in court — but all of the writers take on the idea of “the individual, original, and paternal author” (35) central to copyright to challenge the proprietary logic of the copyright regime with “visions of creativity without property” (8). We need more work of this kind —work that shows literary texts envisioning a “new propertyless world” (162).

The assumption of the book is that all four of its showcased writers are implicitly engaged in a retroactive nose-thumbing at historical practices that did not permit their antecedents to claim proprietary rights in texts. Irr establishes this with an opening chapter on the relation of American women writers to the history of Anglo-American copyright, whose narrative begins with the 1710 English Statute of Anne. A longer view of copyright would helped; as Irr has noted elsewhere,[1] Anglo-American copyright’s origins lie in the letters patent by which Elizabeth I granted a monopoly over the printing of texts to the Stationers Company, but the chapter’s commitment is to gendering the copyright regime. Irr’s “pirates” are “pink” because the copyright regime, “organized with masculine self-ownership in mind,” is “blue” (7). These pirates make their “symbolic . . .  assault” on this regime from “the safe parameters of the copyrighted work,” and their assault takes a variety of forms. In her account of Smith v. Little, Brown & Co. (1965), for example, Irr finds the emergence of “the pirate as a feminine ideal” (47) in two female employees of Little, Brown stealing from Carol Smith the manuscript of the tale of the sixteenth-century female pirate Grania O’Malley.

Each chapter begins with an account of at least one copyright or intellectual property case that establishes the concerns with which Irr sees the chapter’s novel engaging. Sometimes the link between case and novel is very general. For example, Irr discusses the well-known late 1990s legal imbroglios of Donna Karan Internationalat the outset of the chapter on Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal, to conclude that “the turn toward a communal creativity” in the novel is “akin to the sort asserted by the Inuit women in the amauti dispute” (101). (Inuit women brought suit against DKI for selling amauti bought from them in Donna Karan’s Manhattan store with Karan’s labels sewn in.) The methodology here is nevertheless exciting. Irr sees herself as lifting narratives from an academic domain “notoriously vigilant” in “policing . . . contributions made by ‘outsiders’ and amateurs’” (13) to demonstrate how her writers use the literary domain to speak back to the legal logic of copyright and intellectual property cases.

There does, however, seem to be a certain bias at work in the legal readings. In her account of the 1970s Reyher v. Television Workshop, for example, a case which saw Rebecca Reyher bringing suit against Jon Stone and Tibor Gergely, writers for Sesame Street, for allegedly stealing from her the story of a Ukrainian girl’s search for her lost mother, Irr suggests that the tale’s mother is “the voice of the commons” (60), a property to which Reyher as a “prototypical feminist foremother” apparently had a right that the “Sesame Street men” (59) did not. If Reyher had a “universal right” to the story’s “maternal plot,” so too did Stone and Gergely, who claimed the story was “unownable,” and it should have made no difference that she had executed what Kathy Acker would call the “phallic scam” (113) of copyrighting her version in the form of a book for children. Surely the pirates of real interest to a commons here are Stone and Gergely!

Readers will find the same bias, differently inflected, in Irr’s account of the DKI suits, where Karan, the Inuit women, and female factory workers who brought suit against DKI for allegedly intimidating them into working seventy-hour work weeks without overtime pay, are all simply “inhabi[ting],” despite their conflicts, “different corners of the pink and piratical commons” (80). But the reading of Reyher demands special attention because it begs, along with the book more generally, the question of whether the act of claiming copyright in a text contradicts the commons supposedly immanent in it. When she asserts, for example, that Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes “joins [those] of Le Guin, Barrett, and Acker” in imagining a “positive piracy” that “affirms the ethic of shared and hybrid cultivation over proprietary containment” to produce along with them “a strong account of an ideally better world beyond the scope of intellectual property” (158), I wanted some discussion of the contradiction that her pirates aim for this “better world” with published texts that circulate under the aegis of that sign of “proprietary containment” known as a copyright symbol. How much more provocative and politically potent it would be for a literary text not implicated in the “scandalous desire for copyright” (67) to do the work Irr claims these novels are doing — one going viral on the Internet, perhaps! As it is, I wonder just how much power we are to accord the commons “immanent” in these fictions when three of Irr’s writers do not make it possible for pirate-girls who own laptops to preview their novels on Google books.

The exception is, as those already familiar with the work of these four novelists will know, Kathy Acker, whose Pussy, King of the Pirates permits Irr to demonstrate one of the ways in which a woman writer might mobilize copyright — to challenge the constraints it imposes upon representation. Irr finds in Acker’s Pussy a creative manifestation of the philosophy of literary property set out in “Dead Doll Humility,” a story-cum-essay in which Acker expresses great anger towards Harold Robbins, who had objected to her use of four pages of his novel The Pirate in her 1975 novel The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec. The philosophy as expressed in the conflict between a “writer doll” and a Voodoo goddess called Capitol is one of violent opposition to property-in-persons as well as property in anything they create. In Irr’s reading, Pussy serves up ‘uncopyrighted sex’ (112) with accounts of the masturbatory pleasure of pirate girls to celebrate a “postgendered” world in which both pirate girls and pirate boys are free to fuck whom they please, and whose fucking Acker claims the right to represent in the forms and to the extent that she likes, in defiance of the legal logic of cases such as Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Inc. v. Scoreboard Posters, Inc. (1979) that permit corporations to control representations of women’s sexuality.

Within the novel’s pornographic landscape, actual and symbolic cunts loom large. As copulation is seen as a proprietary act, all of the pirates, even the boys, desire to become “a body that is all cunt and allows a continual, feminine coming” (125), a desire that finds an objective corollary in the search for the treasure of the “cave/cunt.” The pirates have a varied relationship to this treasure, as you would expect; those whose bodies are sexed as “women” by their culture will orient themselves differently in relation to the constructions of their bodies as property. This is not, however, as clear as it might be in Irr’s account, which refers only obliquely to a key detail: when O and Ange make off with the treasure from the cave/cunt, Pussy and her sidekick, Silver, remain behind, with Silver explicitly rejecting any such theft, and Pussy “staring out toward the ocean” before she and Silver exit the cave, without taking any of the treasure with them.[2] This is where the novel’s real challenge to the logic of private property lies: not in its rampant sexuality, but in the pirate who finds what has been stolen but does not herself steal.

Irr’s emphasis falls, however, on gendering Pussy’s creativity: the “antiproprietary commons understood and recovered in Acker’s novel,” she writes, is “obscenely feminine” (129). But the “entire landscape” of Pussy may be “pornographic” because the characters have ceded to conceptions of themselves and others as property. It may not be the thing readers are to valorize; it may be the problem. The most important instance of the novel’s obscenity may lie in Pussy’s final gesture, which directs us away from the primary scene, to that which is out of sight or not explicitly staged;[3] for the anti-proprietary commons arises not in or from things in and of themselves, but rather from the actions we take in relation to them. And when the action under consideration is not one of theft, I wish Irr had liberated herself from her governing trope of the pirate as a swashbuckler sailing under a pink flag to “raid more settled and clearly regulated areas of literary culture” (1).

Irr had her best opportunity to do this with Silko’s Gardens, whose young heroine, the Indian girl Indigo, uses the seeds that she gathers from “European hostesses” she meets on a trip with her adoptive mother Hattie, to grow, with Sister Salt, gardens of hybrid flowers in the sands of the American Midwest. Despite the fact that she reads Silko’s use of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland through the definition of parody offered by Justice David Souter in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (1994) to find Silko working within a “tradition of celebratory and creative fair uses of copyrighted material” (149), Irr characterizes the novel as engaged in a “revolutionary form of theft” (138). But if Silko was not in fact breaking any copyright law with her use of Alice and the seed-gathering of her young heroine is, as Irr argues, not biopiracy — if neither Silko nor her character is in fact stealing — is piracy really the apt paradigm within which to construe their actions? What might we gain if we characterized a text that asserts the value of an “inherently cosmopolitan and syncretic” (143) culture without recourse to a notion of “theft”? What if we talked not about “affirmative appropriation” (149) or thefts that are “sometimes figured as non-crimes” (148), but chose instead an analytic frame and a vocabulary that would undo the proprietary character of the things concerned or proprietariness as such? The goal, after all, is a “new propertyless world.”

I also wish Irr had done more with tantalizing details that suggest her pirate writers associate women with texts in ways that have nothing to do with asserting proprietary claims in them. I find one such detail in Irr’s reference to a female character in Barrett’s novel Secret Harmonies (1989) who “unintentionally duplicates [a] letter” by a monk which she “uses . . to comfort lonesome veterans” and through which the monastery “becomes a symbol of an alternative, nonproprietary community organized around writing” (85). I find another in Irr’s claim that Silko’s Hattie “is prohibited from researching the feminine principles of the Gnostic gospels” (154), but satisfied when their “authenticity” is verified (157). I haven’t read the novel, but other summaries I have read note that Hattie is prevented from finishing a thesis on the Gnostic gospels at the Harvard Divinity School when her committee will not approve her argument. It seems, then, that Silko’s novel attempts to recover principles that it associates with a suppressed body of writing signified by “feminine Gnostic texts” (157), and contests over textual authorization in which it implicates members of the academy. These details show both Barrett and Silko pointing back to historical sites and practices from which we might recover entirely different relationships to texts — custodial, for starters —that predate the rise of copyright’s proprietary author. There be treasure!

Irr is, however, interested in another tradition entirely. Her concluding chapter, “Toward a Pink Commons,” picks up on the final note of her introduction, where she asserts that the commons to which her writers are contributing is “not novel and futuristic so much as it is a special sort of neo-traditionalism” (15).  In Utopia’s representation of an “idyllic domesticity rapidly disappearing even in More’s day,” for instance, Irr finds “More’s woman install[ing] a pinkness at the origin of the utopian concept of the commons” (160). It is hard to see what is “idyllic” about arrangements that (amongst other things) keep Utopia’s women from having any chance at an intellectual life — women are important in Utopia primarily as the preparers of food and the producers of children[4] — and baffling that Irr finds a commons in a place that in no obvious way supports what is supposed to be essential to her commons, female creativity. One can have “common storehouses” that women help to manage without having a commons.

Where Irr sees a “pinkness . . . install[ed] at the origin . . . of the commons,” I see a figure for “the virulent survival of forms of alienation specific to the oldest mode of production of human history, with its division of labour between men and women.”[5] Irr’s pretty-in-pink commons may “humanize and domesticate the potentially alien character of the commons for readers held in the intellectual grip of property” (164) — readers for whom “the category of ‘the commons’ slides too easily into ideologically repugnant calls for the abolition of property” (7). It may also have distinct appeal for those committed to a certain strain of feminism. But radical feminism, which aligns itself with Marxism, as Jameson suggested some thirty years ago, when it pursues a “radical restructuration of all the more archaic modes of production,” cannot find in More’s woman anything other than a figure for the commons expropriated. Ideas of alternate forms of social organization may have been historically associated with female figures. They may also be associated predominantly with female characters in Irr’s pink-pirate fictions. But we are not going to reach any commons until we get rid of that property known as “woman.”

This is not to say that Irr could not argue that those who have been and are sexed as “women” have been and continue to be specially placed within historic and continuing forms of social organization to shape a commons from domestic spaces. Certain strands of materialist feminist theory would help her make this argument. But rather than explicitly engaging with materialist feminists such as Sylvia Federici, Irr simply cites Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri on their importance.

I wish there had been more of this kind of engagement; for Irr’s “pink concept of common property” (160) remains for me, at book’s end, a tautology. Irr asks that her commons be “symbolically coloured pink” because pink is associated with certain “‘feminine’ behaviours such as collaborative negotiating styles or a preference for domestic harmony” as well as a “legacy of affirmative communalism” (8). The latter contention is only one of two oblique hints in the book that the “pink” has anything to do with a rhetoric of “pinkoes,” and Irr’s emphasis falls on a pinkness that derives from “a distinctly feminine sharing of cultural resources” (138) as well as an association between her pirates’ “overturning [of] the proprietary account of creativity envisioned in copyright law” — as the penultimate sentence of the book reiterates — and “domestic misrule” (165). This relation is best epitomized in Irr’s reading of Le Guin’s Dispossessed, whose female characters are “natural anarchists” (70) shaming men out of their proprietary ways to convert them into “male mothers” (74). But even if we are content to gender the agent mystified in the claim that her commons “is the place where our tangibly gendered everyday life enters writing and animates its nonproprietary potential” (165), why would we want to construe as pink the commons that results? Irr’s pinking, which derives from a sexed thematic that ties debilitating norms and sexist behavioural codes to bodies, involves a trouble that she does not adequately address. We may not want to put the matter quite as bluntly as the activists Abi and Emma Moore did, a couple of years ago, in their UK campaign against “pinkification” in the marketing of pink clothing and toys to girls, but there is something about “pink” that “stinks.”[6] If current forms of social organization are, as Marx and Engels hoped, to wither along with the law that protects them, the “new propertyless world” would, like the “future subjects” (162) Marx and Engels imagined it would give rise to, need a new vocabulary, not one drawn from an old sexist paradigm, to describe it.

Although Irr does not explicitly offer this rationale, we could argue that her pinking signifies an interim stage in which women writers copyright their work in order to take over a proprietary domain from which they were once excluded in order to undermine it from within. By this logic, the commons that is immanent in their fictions is, in turn, made immanent to the domain that it would destroy and, in their opposition to “blue copyright,” her writers are suitably figured as “pink” agents. But if the commons is immanent everywhere, in expropriated form, in the figures called “women,” then what we are really seeking to do is discriminate them from, and wrest them free of, a field of “blue.” In this case, if we must “symbolically colour” the commons anything, we might find a more suitable hue for the interim phase that takes us towards an anti-proprietary commons that is “ideally post-gendered” (52) in the name of Silko’s young heroine, Indigo.

Indigo is, of course, the colour of a dye made from plants of the genus Indigofera. It is also the hue that Isaac Newton imagined intervening between blue and violet on the colour spectrum. Another Isaac, Asimov, declared indigo not “worth the dignity of being considered a separate color.”[7] As a hue so finely discriminating between phenomena that some could deny its existence, indigo seems a fitting sign for the attempt to extract from an apparently homogeneous field what is buried, as the expropriated, within it. In this sense, to see indigo is to see the forces that will undo a world of private property not as existing in an “exterior to capitalist modernity” (15), but as already inside it, immanent in the current forms of organization, and resisting subsumption. And surely that is the point: that agents do not need to come from an “exterior” to move us “toward” something that is elsewhere, but rather that they arise from what already exists, that in which they are contained, to assert the possibility of other ways of being. Imagining the agents as emerging from a field of blue seems particularly fitting for four novels that were all published after satellite imagery had brought Earth — or that “natural world that sustains us all” (158) — into view as the “blue planet:” The Dispossessed was published four years after Apollo 8 offered the world “Earthrise,” and Gardens at the tail end of the decade in which the satellite Galileo gave it its most famous “blue marble” images.[8]

Irr contends, in the end, that the feminist critique of property offered by these works “culminates in a vision of women’s creativity being nourished by the commons” (159). The more apt formulation might, however, be that the creativity that nourishes the commons has no gender. And so I find myself dwelling on the implications of the tupilaq of Barrett’s Voyage of th Narwhal — that thing of “bones of all kinds of creatures, wrapped in a skin” (99) made by the Inuit boy Tom, which Irr suggests is “analogous to Barrett’s own assemblage of epigraphs, illustrations, historical events, old manuscripts, and invented characters” (101). Do we not have, in Barrett’s tupilaq taking revenge upon the proprietary Captain Zeke by attacking him in Rappahannock river, a figure that suggests we can gender the enemy without gendering the solution?




[1] Caren Irr, “Literature As Proleptic Globalization or A Prehistory of the New Intellectual Property,” South Atlantic Quarterly 100.3 (2001): 773–802.

[2] Kathy Acker, Pussy, King of the Pirates (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 276.

[3] As the OED notes, the various speculative etymologies for obscene include a derivation from “scaena” drawn by Varro from folk etymology.

[4] Thomas More, Utopia, eds. George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams (Cambridge University Press, 1975; rpt., 1991), 58.

[5] Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981), 74.

[6] Jon Henley, “The Power of Pink.” The Guardian, 12 December 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2009/dec/12/pinkstinks-the-power-of-pink. Accessed 16 February 2011.

[7] Isaac Asimov, Eyes on the Universe: A History of the Telescope (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 59). The reference is noted in the Wikipedia entry for “indigo.”

[8] “Earthrise” was published in Life, 26 December 1969, along with James Dickey’s poetic line, “Behold the blue planet steeped in its dream / Of reality.” See 113. As Robert Poole notes in Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (Yale University Press, 2008), “the very phrase ‘blue planet’ has been bound up” ever since “with the ideas of caring for the Earth” (9).

Carolyn Sale is an associate professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. Her articles on Shakespeare and early modern women writers have been published in Shakespeare Quarterly, ELH, The Law in Shakespeare (Palgrave 2007), the History of British Women’s Writing, Vol. II (Palgrave 2010), and elsewhere. She is working on her first book, Common Properties: The Early Modern Writer and the Law and the Literary Commons, 1528-1628.