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August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
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Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

From stealing to sampling
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This might bear watching:

T. S. Eliot once said that “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” Apparently taking this advice to heart, Helene Hegemann, a seventeen-year-old German writer, has “mixed” (her word) together a best-selling novel titled “Axolotl Roadkill.” According to an article in the Times, Hegemann lifted entire pages from a novel by a lesser known writer, and she doesn’t seem at all apologetic about doing so. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Hegemann in response to accusations of plagiarism. The judges of the Leipzig Book Fair seem to agree with her, at least in principle: even after the author admitted to copying another writer’s work, “Axolotl Roadkill” remains a finalist for the Fair’s $20,000 prize in fiction.

The Leipzig committee’s decision not to strike the book from their finalist’s list, effectively endorsing, or at least approving, Hegemann’s actions, is either an alarming or a progressive response. The cultural-relativist argument is that Germany, specifically Berlin, is a hotbed of artistic mixing and mashing, sampling and re-sampling, and that Hegemann is simply employing these same tactics in her writing. If a d.j. can thread together twenty different songs and package the end product as her own, why can’t a writer? This seems to be the question Hegemann is using as a defense. Original content, then, becomes subordinate to context, meaning that as long as a newer, larger work is being created, portions of prior works are fair game.

First, just to be clear — are we using periods and lower-case for “d.j.” now? What’s wrong with DJ? Goes well with MC, doesn’t it? Or is it “m.c.” or “emcee”?

It probably doesn’t matter, because we don’t need the disc jockey remix paradigm to try to understand what might be called “synthetic literature.” Lee Ellis looks back at T.S. Eliot, but in a skewed way:

Perhaps looking at the meaning behind T. S. Eliot’s quote can help clear up this situation. I interpret “steal” to mean, in this context, the act of taking from other texts themes, ideas, rhythms, structures, but not the sentences themselves.

No. I mean, Ellis can interpret Eliot’s sentence this way, divorced from his practice, but it doesn’t change that Eliot the artist stole. Not just the themes, ideas, rhythms, or structures, but the exact sentences.

In fact, you could say that by stealing the sentences, he emptied them of themes or ideas; a line lifted from Baudelaire (about a “hypocrite lecteur,” no less — “a hypocrite reader, my double, my brother”) and repurposed for “The Waste Land” comes to mean, by way of that refraction, something quite different. Like Borges’s “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” a word-for-word recreation of a text arguably becomes a profound transformation of that text.

On the other hand, you can’t just translate someone’s ideas, themes, or structures into superficially new sentences and act like everything is cool. If I rip off your movie idea — plot, themes, characters — but switch some of the words around, I’ve done something much more dangerous than quote a line from your screenplay (especially if it’s relatively well-known).

You could contest Old Possum’s claim that this theft was a sign of “maturity,” but you can’t just act like he isn’t doing it. Nor was his theft all that novel — the pastiche has been a literary game for a long time, and it was particularly popular in the early 20th century, from Pound to Proust.

But calling something unoriginal isn’t identical with calling it plagiarism. Without being entirely arbitrary, let me posit a few things:

  1. Plagiarism really only makes sense in a scholarly or journalistic context. It’s a mistake in the handling of sources, and can be malicious or nonmalicious, and can completely damage a work or be relatively incidental to it;
  2. In art or fiction, assuming that there is a distinction, you need a completely different set of criteria. Hegemann’s shift to “authenticity” is probably not so far off;
  3. Ultimately, judging acts of egregious theft in fiction is going to have to be like judging pornography — you know it when you see it.

So what do we have left? If we’re starting off with the assumption that artistic creation is and should always be ex nihilo — sadly, not much. Maybe instead we need to distinguish between works that are synthetic and analytic — works that combine something to produce something new, versus works that only contain what they borrow (and in some cases, contain LESS than what’s borrowed).

February 18, 2010 / Uncategorized

7 comments

First off, let me tell you what a distinct pleasure it is to have a Tim Carmody post pop up in my Snarkmarket RSS. The Internet is a better place with you back, my friend.

I think your intuition is correct on plagiarism – however I think the judgment on wholesale copying in fiction can be a little different from the ‘pornography’ standard. I think it’s similar to what constitutes one of the instances of legal fair use: transformation. If the way in which you use another writer’s exact words is really transformative then you’re in the clear.

Tim Carmody says…

Aw, sweetheart, I love you too. Remind me to 1) never go to a hospital again and 2) not have to leave my phone at home while I do it. Booooo.

“Maybe instead we need to dis­tin­guish between works that are syn­thetic and ana­lytic — works that com­bine some­thing to pro­duce some­thing new, ver­sus works that only con­tain what they bor­row (and in some cases, con­tain LESS than what’s borrowed).”

In this regard, I’d like to offer that semiologists have been studying this issue for decades. I’ve written a bit about the work of Roland Barthes. His major contribution to semiology and literary criticism is his theory of the “myth.” Far from our standard understanding of myth as an ancient story or recurring elements of a story, Barthes uses the term to identify a semiological structure. The term builds on the idea of a “sign” expounded by Ferdinand de Saussure in his “Course in General Linguistics.” Essentially what Barthes did was explain how something with a meaning and an identity all its own can be used in a way that gives that same thing an entirely different and independent meaning and identity.

You may read more here (http://theshantyblog.blogspot.com/2009/08/roland-barthes-mythologies.html). I hope this post may help.

Tim, I think you need an iphone app that has a map of hospitals that allow iphones. But I prefer option 1) don’t ever go to a hospital again.

I used to watch this awesome Scottish detective show called Taggart, and there was an episode that revolved around the plagiarizing of fiction. It was the translator who made the catch. It was both individual lines and whole plots that had been lifted, in this case from the unpublished manuscripts of a dead man whose heirs could have used the income of publication. It’s an episode whose little details have stayed with me 15 years later, and I wonder if that’s because the writers were particularly invested in the drama of the underyling conflict.

There’s the notion that the new work is replacing the old work: if you buy the copy (counterfeit) you’re not going to buy the original, stealing value from it. As per Andrew’s comment, that seems less an issue when it’s truly transformative. But there’s also the issue that perhaps she did less work b/c she merely reused theirs: sort of why patents need to be licensed for derivative work. She owes them a cut of her revenue. I can’t articulate a legal principle behind this beyond patents, and certainly not in the fashionable content-is-free aesthetic, but it still strikes me as only fair.

Elliot’s case indirectly brings to mind the habit of many western writers of his generation had of borrowing lines and phrases liberally from the Upanishads; no problems there, really, but then it reminds me of something different yet the same: finding material goods that are clearly Indian in style but manufactured in a cheaper place, like China. That sort of things makes me viscerally angry because it is robbing Indian craftspeople of their brand–their cultural inheritance and one of their few ways out of poverty. That’s a more extreme example of the kind of dynamic I worry about here.

mar says…

T. S. Eliot once said that “good writers borrow, great writers steal.”

I’ve always heard that formula (with “artists” in place of “writers”) attributed to Picasso, although after a bit of googling I’m not convinced either one of them actually put those words together in that order.

Nancy Prager seems to have tracked down the original Eliot passage that’s been condensed and distorted into that gnomic little slogan. It comes from his essay on Philip Massinger, and directly anticipates your distinction between “works that combine something to produce something new, versus works that only contain what they borrow (and in some cases, contain LESS than what’s borrowed)”:

One of the surest tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
Eliot, T.S., “Philip Massinger,” The Sacred Wood, New York: Bartleby.com, 2000.

It may be worth emphasising that Eliot isn’t making trite prescriptions for greatness, here, or writing a manifesto for pastiche. He’s pulling general observations into an account of Massinger’s weakness – an immature poet will of necessity imitate or echo other work in ways that do little but display influence; more controlled, seamlessly transformative appropriation (stealing) reveals artistic maturity. Shakespeare, Webster and Tourneur display that maturity, Massinger not so much.

Nice pull, Mar.

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