There’s a plagiarism tempest (in a teapot) going on in Toronto right now. A Globe and Mail columnist, Margaret Wente, stands accused of plagiarism by an anonymous blogger who isn’t really anonymous because everyone (I am not clear how) in the Twitterverse seems to know who she is (apparently, she is a painter and adjunct faculty member at the University of Ottawa named Carol Wainio). So far hardly anyone is looking good in this debate which you can follow on Google News; the football term “piling on” seems a propos. Also the words “naivete” and “holier-than-thou” and “schadenfreude.” Plagiarism is one of those words that twists in the wind. William Shakespeare and Laurence Sterne were genius plagiarists; students who get caught plagiarizing essays in university (sometimes) get expelled. The Bible is a redaction of innumerable texts amalgamated and sewn together, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes elegantly, by multiple anonymous editors, but without the least scintilla of attribution except for the more or less Hellenized versions of the names of legendary putative authors; a whole academic field, textual criticism, is devoted to sorting out who wrote what (much as Carol Wainio did with Margaret Wente’s work). Of course, in those days the idea of plagiarism hadn’t been invented yet; plagiarism is an invention of capitalism and the industrial revolution. The naive view of plagiarism, that any copying, mis-attribution, borrowing, quoting, appropriation, or reworking of someone else’s written words or ideas, can be small-minded and stultifying, can limit creativity and intellectual advance (there is, in fact, an ongoing legal debate about the balance between protecting copyright and infringing on a society’s right to the creative flow of ideas). In truth, the culture lives on borrowed ideas; painters learn to paint by copying other painters; children learn to speak by imitation. In the newspaper world especially your words aren’t your words; they belong to the people who pay you. Nothing of what I wrote in my years as a newspaperman is my own to republish or resell as I wish. As a copy editor at the Montreal Star, one of my jobs (very much like the ancient editors of the Bible) was to cut up texts from various wire service reports and glue (this was before computers—it was real glue) them back together, synthesizing multiple reports and sources (at the top of the story, we’d acknowledge that the story was put together from AP, UPI and the Washington Post, for example, but without attributing specific parts of the text). By some measures this was plagiarism, except it wasn’t. Actually, the whole plagiarism debate masks a much more blood-curdling issue: does anyone these days have an original thought and what does one look like? I don’t think anything I have just written is remotely original — I’ve wasted a good deal of my life reading and then forgetting who wrote what — except for the bit about my job at the Montreal Star. The twist in the argument at the end, the sting in the tail, is mine; except that its form is a rhetorical flourish I learned from someone else (I forget who but maybe it was Ortega y Gasset who first gave me the idea of arguing by inversion).
At NC we’ve noted some recent aesthetic manifestos and imbroglios in the ongoing whatever-it-is.
To add to the joyful confusion, herewith a quotation and a link to Jonathan Lethem’s fine piece of plagiarism (elevated here to a literary genre) “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Thanks to Frank Tempone for his Tweet that brought me to this text.
Blues and jazz musicians have long been enabled by a kind of “open source” culture, in which pre-existing melodic fragments and larger musical frameworks are freely reworked. Technology has only multiplied the possibilities; musicians have gained the power to duplicate sounds literally rather than simply approximate them through allusion. In Seventies Jamaica, King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry deconstructed recorded music, using astonishingly primitive pre-digital hardware, creating what they called “versions.” The recombinant nature of their means of production quickly spread to DJs in New York and London. Today an endless, gloriously impure, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of music.