The Universal Library of Appropriation
Patrick Greaney

In The Ego and Its Own, Michalis Pichler appropriates a philosophical text that is at once an outsider and part of the canon. Max Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own (1845) is “the anarchic product of an eccentric” and, at the same time, the “ultimate logical consequence of Hegel’s historical system,” as Karl Löwith puts it.[1] Pichler may have chosen to appropriate Stirner’s book because it is, above all else, a primer in appropriation. It offers lessons in how to make things, people, ideas, and even spirit and world history mine. For Stirner, this means using them up, incorporating them, all the while making sure they don’t get the upper hand. “If anything plants itself firmly in me and becomes indissoluble, I become its prisoner and servant, a possessed man,” Stirner warns.[2] In an essay from 1842, Stirner describes his desired form of appropriation as the development of “tact,” of “momentary knowledge that determines one’s action in the moment.” This “knowledge must become immaterial by sacrificing its mortal parts and becoming immortal, becoming will,” Stirner writes.[3] The Ego and Its Own is part of Stirner’s life project of dematerialization, another reason why Pichler, an avid appropriator of conceptual art, might have been drawn to the book.

Pichler has followed Stirner’s advice to the letter: he makes The Ego and Its Own his, turning it into a work suspended between concrete poetry and conceptualism. By eliminating every word that is not a first person pronoun, Pichler reveals a galaxy of smaller texts within Stirner’s text, an immense collection of miniature syntactical, declensional dramas. Pichler’s book is best appreciated (that is: best appropriated) when read aloud. Its pages and spreads stage scenes in which I do something unnamed to me or for me, or in which something is done to me, in which reading slows down, speeds up, and stalls, and in which a clinamen always seems to interfere and add intrigue. There’s a “spook” that appears, and there are chapter titles like “Mein Verkehr” and “Mein Selbstgenuß,” “my intercourse” and “my self-pleasure.” This is not a book where nothing happens.


In the old art the writer writes texts. In the new art the writer makes books. 

- Ulises Carrión, “The New Art of Making Books” 


Pichler doesn’t just copy and alter The Ego and Its Own. He appropriates Stirner’s book in the edition published in 1968 by the Reclam publishing house in its Universal Library (Universal Bibliothek) series, which, if translated into Anglophone publishing terms, would be something like a combination of Penguin Classics, Dover Thrift Editions, and Signet Classics, packaged in a classic, uniform design. Many German readers first encounter Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, and E.T.A. Hoffmann in the Universal Library’s compact, bright yellow format. And for many readers, the series’ anthologies of Expressionism, Zurich Dada, Berlin Dada, and concrete poetry offer the first encounter with the avant-garde. These associations create an affective, possessive, and maybe even nationalist relation to the Universal Library. For German readers, Pichler’s appropriation of the Universal Library is probably the most striking thing about this work. It is more interesting, funnier, and more transgressive than copying a nineteenth-century philosophical text.

The Reclam publishing house was founded in 1828 in Leipzig, and the first volume in the Universal Library series appeared in 1867, which is when many German classics first entered the public domain. Reclam was already known for its inexpensive Shakespeare translations, and it soon became the dominant publisher of cheap editions of German classics. The yellow covers for texts in German, and the orange cover for bilingual versions of international classics, were first introduced in 1970.

In his speech at the press’s centenary celebration, Thomas Mann makes some grand claims about the Universal Library’s influence on German culture:

The Reclam library! It’s hard to imagine a German who hasn’t called on it for help, whose spiritual assets have no relation to its existence… One is very lucky to belong to a cultured, intelligent, civilized people that lives up to its destiny and masters it with a skillful hand. For a century now, the Reclam publishing house has played an honorable role in the education of our people, in raising its aptitude to the highest level.[4]

In her 1942 book commemorating the 75th anniversary of the series, Annemarie Meiner echoes Mann: “The collection shows us what it means to serve the people and to be a part of the life of the people.” For Meiner, the Volk’s “spiritual force” was first awakened by Reclam and then flowed back into the series; “this is how the Universal Library fused with the German people.”[5]

Meiner has to tread a fine line, heeding the Nazi imperative to praise creativity without devaluing Reclam’s expropriation of the classics. Since he came up with the idea of the Universal Library series, she compares Anton Philipp Reclam, the son of the press’s founder, to Gutenberg, but she also applauds the end of the copyright protection of German classics: “It’s hard to believe that it was just 75 years ago that those legal restrictions disappeared that separated our greatest German writers from their people.”[6] Although genius should be valued above all else, the access to literature shouldn’t be hampered by laws that protect writers’ intellectual property.

 But some copyright protections would be helpful, she says, when it’s a matter of shielding great geniuses from lesser beings’ parasitic copies. Meiner mentions the Japanese Iwanami-Bunko classics series, an imitation of the UB series that doesn’t seem to bother her very much. She does, however, seem disturbed by the existence of the Prague-based Jewish Universal Library, which published Jewish classics in German from 1895 to 1905:

The pinnacle of unabashed imitation can be seen in the Jewish Universal Library. A cursory glance at one of its volumes would lead one to believe it to be a Reclam Universal Library book. It’s the same format, the same reddish cover, the same layout of the title. If there were such a thing as the legal protection of a book format, of a book’s design, then…the whole series would have to be called an act of downright theft (or plagiarism)… The existence of this series in German shows that the Jews, in a blatant act of fraud, tried to hijack the great attractive force of the Reclam series.[7]

Meiner draws here on a long history of associating Jews and imitation, whose locus classicus might be Wagner’s “Jewishness in Music.” The Jewish version of the Universal Library seems particularly egregious to her because of Reclam’s fusion with the German people. The Jews appropriated something that is Germany’s “own,” something that belonged to Germans in an intimate way, and this seems even worse to Meiner than another kind of appropriation: the distribution of Allied anti-Nazi propaganda in false Reclam covers, which Meiner calls an “outrageous abuse of the trust that readers everywhere have in the Universal Library.”[8]


The new art knows that books exist as objects in an exterior reality, subject to concrete conditions of perception, existence, exchange, consumption, use, etc. 

- Ulises Carrión, “The New Art of Making Books” 


Pichler’s book appropriates Reclam and its history, focusing on this format and series that might otherwise appear to be a neutral container for the presentation of texts. The book that Pichler appropriates has a history, which includes a particular relation to appropriation. It’s not as if Pichler appropriates an object that, in itself, is unsullied by copying, stealing, plagiarizing. Stirner’s book is about appropriation. Meiner’s history makes clear the importance of appropriation in Reclam’s history: the Universal Library owes its very existence to appropriation, and its founders and historians have been watchful, tallying up the good and bad appropriations of the national, racial institution that they guard. It seems urgent to Meiner to determine the place of appropriation in the political history of a series that has, according to her, formed the German people.

 “We cannot precisely say what is not appropriation,” Pichler writes. It is, he continues, “impossible to draw a categorical line. Appropriation is practiced everywhere and all the time, even by people who have never heard the word.”[9] In The Ego and Its Own, Pichler uses the Universal Library to show how universal appropriation is, and he does so by simply copying its existing format. After all, Pichler might say, there’s no need to pretend to create ex nihilo when the world is already full of books and book formats, more or less interesting, more or less laden with aesthetic and political potential, all of them waiting to be appropriated and to be made fruitful in new ways.


[1] Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought, trans. David E. Green (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964), 103.

[2] Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, ed. David Leopold, trans. Steven Byington (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 127.

[3] Max Stirner, “Das unwahre Prinzip unserer Erziehung oder: Der Humanismus und Realismus,” in Hans G Helms, ed., Max Stirner: Der Einzige und sein Eigentum und andere Schriften (Munich: Hanser, 1968), 7-23, 20. 

[4] Thomas Mann, “Hundert Jahre Reclam: Festrede gehalten bei dem Festakt anlässlich der Hundert-Jahr-Feier des Verlages Philipp Reclam jun. am 1. Oktober 1928,” in Mann, Zwei Festreden (Leipzig: Reclam, 1957), 39-55, 52 and 55.

[5] Annemarie Meiner, Reclam: Eine Geschichte der Universal-Bibliothek zu ihrem 75-jährigen Bestehen (Leipzig: Reclam, 1942), 4.

[6] Ibid., 25, 6.

[7] Ibid., 266.

[8] Ibid., 253. Another account of these anti-Nazi Reclam appropriations can be found in Dietrich Bode, Reclam: Daten, Bilder und Dokumente zur Verlagsgeschichte, 1828-2003 (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2003), 111-112.

[9] Michalis Pichler, “Appropriation,” curatorial statement on Printed Matter website, online at, accessed at March 15, 2015.