At one level academic referencing is a matter of honesty and etiquette. It acknowledges that your work has developed from other work and enables your readers to follow up on specific sources should they be interested. Hardly objectionable in these terms. But referencing is not only about ethics and good behaviour. It is also about tracing and insisting upon a network of intellectual property relations. Furthermore it suggests that the various borrowings (debts) can be adequately accounted for. Only the commonly known escapes the need for a reference. Everything else – everything that is properly owned – must be properly acknowledged. This also implies that everything that is not common currency or an acknowledged source is your own work. So by acknowledging the claims of others, you assert your own scope for originality and your own proprietary claims. But is it possible to fully acknowledge your debts and to establish a clear space of ownership? Wouldn’t the inter-textual character of any written document exceed the capacity for it to ever be adequately referenced (not only at the level of the explicit content, but also at the level of rhetoric and style)? And is writing and the cultural dialogue it entails best thought in terms of the model of property, of ownership?

I ask this because I have just read Michel Serres’ Malfeasance (2010), which includes no references whatsoever. This comes across less as intellectual hubris than as an acknowledgement that everything he writes emerges from a tradition. it is his and it is not his. it is original and it is not original. Explicit references would only downplay the extent of his debt and overestimate his scope for repayment. But, more than this, Serres’ practice opens up the possibility of perceiving writing as something more than an individually owned possession, as something that attracts an author as a necessary fiction, as something that has the potential to manifest other identities and other relations.

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