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The literary unconscious: rereading authorship and copyright with Kant's ‘on the wrongfulness of reprinting’ (1785)

Goh, Benjamin (2022) The literary unconscious: rereading authorship and copyright with Kant's ‘on the wrongfulness of reprinting’ (1785). PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004435


This thesis undertakes an extended rereading of Immanuel Kant’s 1785 periodical essay, Von der Unrechtmäßigkeit des Büchernachdrucks (‘On the Wrongfulness of Reprinting’), that attends closely to the transactions between its material form and rhetorical content. In so doing, this thesis supplements recent attempts in Kantian copyright scholarship to rethink the institution of copyright and its relationship with authors, works, and the public through recourse to the essay’s non-proprietary concept of the book and proposed regime of authors’ and publishers’ rights. Though the law of copyright qua intellectual property pertains to this thesis as a hegemonic institutional form that has enshrined the myth of the proprietary author, it is rather the question of authorship, namely, our cultural and legal understandings of who and what an author is; how the author relates to the book and the realities of literary production; and how such received notions interact with the materiality of the book; that most concerns this thesis. It contributes to accrued cross-disciplinary efforts to so reread the past(s) and present(s) of the author-function as to foreground not just its legal structures of implementation, but also its medial-material matrices. From this perspective, the materialities of authorship, particularly the visual-corporeality of the printed book and its surrounding practices in late-eighteenth-century Germany, hold the key to disclosing the limits of contemporary copyright law, which remains attached to the figure of the author as creator, and first owner, of the literary work even as it is seemingly threatened by such digital practices as the mass digitisation of books. To begin to grasp how our received understandings of authorship and copyright might, and perhaps should, change in digital culture, we revisit a late-eighteenth-century text that indexed its own share of complex interactions between literary actors and technologies no less affected by evolving conditions of literary (re)production. In so moving between these two times of authorship, that in the German Enlightenment and that in contemporary copyright regimes, we engage in a shared practice of so rereading Kant’s text and the historical event in which he participated as to better understand and negotiate our present uncertainties.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2022 Benjamin Goh
Library of Congress subject classification: K Law > K Law (General)
Sets: Departments > Law
Supervisor: Pottage, Alain

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