I vividly remember reading this New York Times article from three years ago, and thinking to myself that this girl has got to be the most irritating German honors student since the Wittgensteins. It’s about a 17-year-old author-prodigy who was up for a prestigious literary prize with a $20,000 award attached. She was then accused of plagiarism. When asked about it, she released a statement which included a sentence which made it seem as though what she did was the most natural thing in the world: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
I don’t view corporal punishment for minors with anything but horror, and I actually agree with her statement. But I think it was that one word: ‘anyway’,... which nearly made me ram my head through my laptop screen. To defend yourself earnestly against such a charge is expected; and in certain contexts, to claim that the charge is not as serious as it sounds can be admirable. And it’s certainly important for a writer of value to challenge the accepted norms of what a person in that profession should be allowed to do. But to make the tone of that defense so blithe as to pretend that all those centuries of arguments to the contrary are of no value is the kind of arrogance that makes people sympathetic to bookburners. Only a teenager who is a complete little shit in dire need of a metric ruler to the ass would be so certain of the moral rightness of such a position that she would throw around a cultural cliche which has only come into being in the last 15 years as though it’s an unimpeachable scientific fact. And only a young artist of Wagnerian arrogance would do so when she’s up for a prize that could be responsible for feeding many older writers’ families for a couple years. And what’s worst of all, an artist of such immaturity as this one probably believes that she is uttering a prophetic truth which no one understood before such a free thinker was there to illuminate such a shocking truth for her blessed public - as though big-worded processes like intertextuality and recontextualization didn’t exist before the 21st century. So here’s an unoriginal and authentic concept for you Helene Hegemann: Fickdich du wertlos kind!
But let’s face it. Like many kids in dire need of an adult to shut them up, the pischerin has a point. Helene Hegemann is, sadly, absolutely right about the fact that her plagiarism is not a case of theft so long as she doesn’t in her heart of hearts believe it is. If the appropriation is truly meaningful to her - and even more importantly, to the reader - then she was within her rights to appropriate whatever she liked. To greater and lesser extents, every writer does it. Especially this one.
In case you haven’t noticed already, I’m a hopelessly rampant plagiarizer on this blog. At least once a week, I sit at this computer and make sweet, sweaty, filthy love to plagiarism on this site. Many if not most of my insights can usually be read elsewhere on the internet or at your local public library (just ask if you want me to point out which websites, articles, and books I pilfer from) - and I’m sure that occasionally the very sentence structure and choice of adverbs and pronouns remain unchanged.
And so few people read this blog that really... who cares? And even if people did, who should care even so? This idea which professors and editors have that their charges are brilliant enough to always have insights and research of their own is hilarious, especially because editors usually have assistants who do their factchecking for them, and professors usually have grad students who do their research. If I thought there were any chance in hell of a blog like this leading to a well-paying job as a writer at a major magazine, I might write differently. But this is the worst market for journalism since before the invention of the newspaper. And am I really going to apply to grad school for a slightly better chance to succeed were I to apply for the worst job market in the modern history of academia?
On any given day, I read far too many journalistic jeremiads and far too much professorial pontification. I inevitably find myself thinking that this is time better spent going to the gym - a place I have not been in more than three months. But no matter what I read on any given day, I’m rather helpless before the oft-occurring thought that the best-credentialed writers are the true idiots of worldwide discourse.
Professional experts persist in their folly because to relinquish it would be to acknowledge it. The best-credentialed writers are cramped within the worldviews of their professional circles, their perceptions obstructed by prejudices born of too close a proximity with establishment views, and due to their cumbersome erudition they have an overwhelming tendency to mistaken individual trees for the forest. If they cannot retain the ability to see their subject through simple lenses, they will miss the overwhelming signs of change - it simply is not within their ability to see the change for what it is. No Sovietologist predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, and no Middle East intelligence expert predicted that Saddam had no weapon of mass destruction.
The ability to say something meaningful about a subject requires the courage to do so in the face of knowledge that what you say may well be overwhelmingly wrong. The ability to say something meaningful about an unknown subject requires the courage to do so in the face of knowledge that the only manner in which you can be proven is wrong. The entire history of knowledge is a synthesis of superficial research, incompetent judgement, and incomplete data. Few academic historians write popular history, few literature professors write for the lay reader, and still fewer scientists seem interested in addressing their findings to a larger public than their colleagues. The idea that original research should be addressed to the amateur as well as the professional is considered completely risible among today's professional intellectuals. And therefore professional circles become an insular club with no outside perspectives to hold them accountable for when their established order is in dire need of change, which is most of the time.
We currently live in a country which drains us of any fortitude we may have to stand up against the tide of received wisdom. Our top universities choose their students particularly for their docility, then train them to parrot the views into which they’ve been indoctrinated. If a business or research facility requires an innovator, they do well not to pick someone with a Harvard degree. But if you want a specialist who knows the ins and outs to the exact detail of his particular specialization and sufficiently timid to leave the thinking of how it might apply elsewhere to other people, hire the MIT grad. There's a reason that so many financial whizzes are Ivy League graduates - it's because they've been trained to be moral autistics. But if a business requires a critical thinker who will think broadly and integrally, they’ll know to look elsewhere. And no one knows this better than Silicon Valley, which has become the last bastion of American innovation by relying on a backbone of intelligent computer programmers who don’t even have college degrees.
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley’s rivals in East Asia are fully credentialed academics who will work at less than a quarter the price of their Yale-and-Columbia-reared peers. They have far more education than their counterparts in Silicon Valley - an education which they probably worked much harder to receive than their Ivy League rivals - but they also have been brought up in a society which encourages them to think outside their views of what is proper (at least in their fields of research). Copyright as we think of it does not exist in most parts of East Asia, and the average Chinese computer specialist will have the experience of rebuilding virtually any American designed electronic product from keyboard chip to microchip to be resold in the Asian market at a fraction of the price. How long is it before they use this experience, no doubt far more educational than any which a Silicon Valley company can offer, to create products that are far more effective and imaginative than those products we now design in America; products which the average Chinese and Indian specialist already understands far better than our own average specialist does?
It is these very standards of professionalism, honorable though they are, which can seal the death warrant of an entire society. It is a tragic truth of being that no culture can hope to innovate when beholden to too many strictures. To succeed requires the risk of failure, and protections against theft are like antibodies, too many of them will deplete the immune system they’re meant to strengthen. And just as sick people have to face uncomfortable truths about their bodies, we have to face some unpleasant truths about our culture: just as America’s insistence on the full rights of workers may have ruined the chance for millions of Americans to be employed in any capacity, and just as America’s insistence on constantly free democratic process may have frozen government’s capacity to act in ways that are to society’s benefit, American society’s insistence on full originality in our artistic, scholastic, and journalistic creators may have ruined the chances for thousands (at least) of Americans to live lives that are creatively meaningful. We don’t want to think in such ways, and to think in such a manner invites us all to fall down all sorts of slippery slopes toward evil, but whether or not we indulge in such thinking, the evidence before us points us so far toward the direction of illiberal thought that we’re placed directly upon that slope whether we wish to be there or not.
The truth of the matter remains, we plagiarize every day. We are nothing but multiples of other people’s thoughts, words, feelings, and actions. We plagiarize each other’s expressions of courtesy, each other’s hairdos, each other’s spirituality, and each other’s bedroom moves. We are the sum total of that material which we learn from each other, and our authentic individual imprint is that particular combination of the material which belongs to us all which each of us cannot help but secrete. To declare that we are capable of originality is to be arrogant enough to declare that we see reality accurately enough to have a thought which we know no one before us ever had. But we perceive only that part of reality which is shown to us - what right have we to claim the mantle of originality?
Goethe, that great German bore of an original genius, once said that the very act of tracing sources is absurd. You “as well might inquire of a well-nourished man as to the oxen, sheep, and pigs he had consumed and from which he had drawn his strength. We have our native talents, it is true, but our development we owe to the thousand outer influences of a great world, from which we appropriate what we can and what suits us.”
A mind is a natural pilfer. It's drive wilts when it fails to find enough other intellects to rob, and its fortitude wilts just as easily when it fails to find other minds to rob it. Great ideas are never the work of a single individual, but a process by which a whole society works them through. It takes a village to raise an idea, and the race is not to the swiftest but to the most complete. Ownership of idea belongs to the person who phrases it best, not first. And from a good phrasing of an idea comes another idea, to whom its authorship is given to the person who phrases that next idea best. For as Goethe says “At bottom, we are all collective natures, pose individually as we may. For how little have we, and are we, that we can in the purest sense call our own!. . . I owe my works by no means to my own wisdom alone, but to thousands of things and persons outside myself, who provide me with the material. Fools and wise men, clear and circumscribed thinkers, childhood, youth, and maturity: all these came to me and told me what they were like, what they thought, how they lived and worked, and what store of experience they had, so that all I had to do was to turn to and reap what others had sown for me.”
This is what it means to live in a community of thought. We are no more responsible for the thoughts that occur to us than we are for any other fact of our existence. We may will ourselves to think a certain things, but we can no more will what we perceive than we can will our heart rate or blood pressure. We can do small things to make them function as we like, but those small gestures (like going to the gym) often serve to show us how powerless our willpower is to control the most basic things about ourselves. Our wills and fates so contrary run that our devices still are overthrown. Our thoughts are ours, their ends, none of our own.
….I’m particularly proud of those last two sentences.