Monday, November 24, 2014

Originality, Plagiarism and Pierre Menard, Part 2

Jonathan sets me straight. At least partly. On my reading, Pierre Menard neither "re-wrote Don Quixote without ever having read it" nor "transcribed" it through some unknown process that rendered it an "original" composition of his own. Both ideas are belied by Borges' text. "When I was twelve or thirteen years old I read it," writes Menard in his letter to the narrator, "perhaps in its entirety. Since then I've reread several chapters attentively." Our narrator also tells us that Menard's "aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it." Jonathan at one point suggests Menard "reproduces or 'transcribes' it through an unexplained science-fictiony device" or alternatively (and I think more plausibly) "memorize[s] sections of it and then sit down to write, but never writing down something unless he felt it as his own". Jonathan emphasises that honesty is the key to this, since in one sense what he is doing is in fact transcribing: he is "writing across" from one text to his own. It's only when he has actually appropriated the words, so that they are no longer Cervantes' but his own, that his project has succeeded. The standards by which one can evaluate this process are of course unknown.

I'm still not convinced this is exactly what Borges, Menard or the fictional literary critic had in mind. I'm entirely willing to play at being "more Borgesian than Borges" as Jonathan suggests, of course. But I need to square my understanding of the text with, especially, this description of Menard's process, provided in that same letter to the narrator:

My [Menard's] general memory of Don Quixote [from his reading], simplified by forgetfulness and indifference, is much the same as the imprecise, anterior image of a book not yet written. Once this image (which no one can deny me in good faith) has been postulated, my problems are undeniably considerably more difficult than those which Cervantes faced. My affable precursor did not refuse the collaboration of fate; he went along composing his immortal work a little a la diable, swept along by inertias of language and invention. I have contracted the mysterious duty of reconstructing literally his spontaneous work. My solitary game is governed by two polar laws. The first permits me to attempt variants of a formal and psychological nature; the second obliges me to sacrifice them to the 'original' text and irrefutably to rationalize this annihilation."

Here the suggestion is that he'll work with his memory of the story, not his memory of the the text, which he insists is as imperfect as a novelist's image of a book he's not yet written. It's out of that imaginary that he will attempt to produce a text that is identical to Cervantes'. The claim is that he succeeded in writing two chapters and part of another.

I'm being pedantic only for the sake of making this clear to myself. And also because something Jonathan said reminded me of another remark of Borges' in his "Note on (towards) Bernard Shaw". "The heroic aspect of the feat," says Jonathan, "[is] bridging the distance between the two sensibilities without ever cheating. The exact mechanism ... is deliberately obscure since what matters is the negotiation between the two subjectivities." In his "Note", Borges dismisses a series of literary "devices"—Lully's metaphysical discs, Mill's worry about the exhaustion of the possibilities of music, Lasswitz's "total library" (which Borges successful made his own)—because they turned the problem into "a kind of play with combinations". I think Susan Blum's "folk anthropologists" are in the same category.

Those who practice this game forget that a book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialog it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory.

I think we have to remember that Menard was not trying to do something like those patchwriters who want to know what the minimum amount of changes you have to make to a text is if you want to turn it into paraphrase. He was, as Jonathan says, attempting a "negotiation between two subjectivities" in the most difficult terrain imaginable, i.e., in the mental space that differentiates the meaning of two identical texts.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Originality, Plagiarism and Pierre Menard

A recent post of Jonathan Mayhew's reminded me of an old complaint I have about the blurbs on my Penguin paperbacks. My 1981 King Penguin edition of Borges' Labyrinths describes Pierre Menard as "the man who re-wrote Don Quixote word for word without ever reading the original" on the back cover. (This sort of thing happens a lot, I've found. I wonder if it's a convention I've never been told about. Perhaps blurbs are supposed to be misleading so as not to ruin the plot?) In any case, my reading of "Pierre Menard" doesn't have him doing any "transcribing", as Jonathan seems to say. In fact, I thought the opposite was true.

Pierre Menard, as I read Borges, was trying to write Cervantes' Don Quixote without plagiarizing it. The task seems to be an impossible one; indeed, it seems absurd. Menard intends to write the exact same words as Cervantes, but he, Menard, is now to be their author. As Borges's fictional literary critic points out, the words will be the same, but their meaning will be entirely different. Menard wanted to, literally, write Don Quixote.

How can you become the author of a book that has already been written? We can imagine a parallel universe in which, as in ours, Cervantes writes the Quixote in the early seventeenth century but, unlike ours, does not publish it, and does not achieve the fame he enjoys here. Then, four-hundred years later, Menard discovers the manuscript and publishes it as an original creation of his own mind. This would of course still make him a plagiarist, but it would be very difficult to discover (if he kept his own secret). Menard would now become the author, and, if he really did present it as something he had just written, his words would be interpreted as those of a contemporary.

Though it is hugely unlikely, we could also imagine another universe in which Menard, in a true coincidence, produces a work that is identical to Cervantes' unpublished manuscript, exactly as Penguin's blurb writer suggests. In this parallel universe, then, two people write the same manuscript independently, they both spring from ("originate" in) the imagination of each unique author. This, interestingly enough, is the sort of "impossible originality" that I've argued we demand of students. We want them to "come up with" ideas that are in most cases already available in the published literature they just haven't read yet.

But these are not the universes that Borges would have us imagine. Menard desires a universe in which Cervantes wrote and published Don Quixote and in which Menard, fully aware of Cervantes' achievement, could also write and publish the same sequence of words, but in his own name, and, like I say, without plagiarizing them. As Borges and Menard are aware, this requires Menard to forget Cervantes' version. The odds against Menard's project are formidable*: the odds of writing the Quixote without plagiarizing it are exactly the odds of writing an exact copy of any book that one has never read. In our parallel universe we need only posit that Menard does not actually discover Cervantes' manuscript. Rather, someone else discovers it after Menard has become famous (if writing an original Quixote in 19051935 warrants literary fame). I suppose there would be a scandal. No one would believe Menard had not transcribed Cervantes.

And that's what happens when we find that a student who has, as expected, submitted an "unoriginal" idea in an essay, has also, as expected not to, used the exact same words as, either another student, or an academic blogger, or published scholar. We would not be entirely surprised to find a sophomore English major propose that Nick Caraway was gay. But we would raise an eyebrow if the student wrote "It’s a testament to Fitzgerald’s talent as a novelist that he was able to provide so much textual evidence that Nick is gay without confirming it or drawing undue attention to it. Subtlety is an art." Here a set of quotation marks and a reference to Greg Olear, not to mention an ellipsis, would, of course, be expected.

*Perhaps this is why Andrew Gelman is so passionate about plagiarism. The excuses are so often an affront to probability theory.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Revision of Solitude?

According to Susan Blum, academia is beholden to an "eighteenth century model of the self and author [which assumes] a singularity and essence that [is] fixed, unchanging and in some ways isolated (unaffected by others’ influence)." But she and her fellow anthropologists have been questioning these assumptions, noting that recent technological developments render them obsolete and should have us rethinking our basic approach to higher education. Shaped by social media, "our students have become folk anthropologists, speaking out about the impossibility of singularity, the shared quality of discourse, the reality of fragments of texts incorporated into every utterance (or written document) and the collective nature of cultural creation." As Jonathan Mayhew has pointed out, this sort of thing has become pretty orthodox in the social sciences, travelling under the banner of "postmodernism". He's not exactly impressed.

As I was reading Jonathan's post, a remark about Rosmarie Waldrop's use of the "I" in her introduction to Curves to the Apple came to mind. "This 'I'," she says, "has lately been confused with the expression of unquestioned subjectivity and identity. But it simply indicates that language is taking place." She doesn't say who "has lately been confused", but it may well be those anthropologists and their students, who think that demanding "originality" of authors is tantamount to requiring them to be "geniuses". Now, Waldrop is a poet and her remarks resonate nicely with those of another poet, Tony Tost. He also doesn't say exactly who he has in mind, but he seems to be correcting a common misconception when he says, "One is not condemned to a perpetual present, nor to the immediacy of seemingly random, unconnected signifiers. In summary, one is here because one has remembered to be here. In conversation, one discusses what rises" (Invisible Bride, p. 46). There's something distinctly postmodern about the "immediacy" he rejects. But, like Waldrop, he suggests that we should just keep talking. Perhaps it's just language.

Allen Grossman, a poet of Waldrop's generation (b. 1932) who recently died, also seems to hold an "eighteenth century" notion of the "in some ways isolated" self. Explicitly so, in fact: he invokes Descartes, the godfather of the "isolated subject". In his postscript to Descartes' Loneliness he tells us that "We, each one of us alone, think in our solitude about our own mind and about the world, in language—and each finds out thought about the self, about other persons and their claims upon the self, speaking and answering by means of language." There it is again—language. Grossman, if I recall, is one of Tost's influences, and perhaps we see a bit of it on the same page I already quoted: "Talking becomes a conscious stammering not in one's language, but in how one thinks," he writes; "a conversation represents not so much a break with solitude, but a newer form of solitude, a revision of the logic of solitude."

I became aware of Tost's work back in 2003, when I read a poem that, interestingly enough, was made by patching together materials found on the Internet by searching for variations on the phrase that constitutes the title, "I Am Not the Pilot". It had a profoundly liberating effect on me. The poet, as I've noted elsewhere, is rejecting the sort of "competence" that is demanded of him, and is performing that rejection precisely by plagiarising every word of the poem. (This "Google sculpting" has since become the hallmark of so-called "Flarf" poetry.) I have never held this against him. He remains my favourite living poet.

I'll continue this soon. There's an obvious tension here between the poetic sense of self and language and the anthropological one. At the same time, Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot" is perhaps a sign of a "revision of the logic of solitude", the logic that is characterized by Grossman as "Descartes' loneliness". That revision may be, as Blum suggests, driven by technology. That doesn't mean that we are, to use Tost's word, "condemned" to lose ourselves. What was it William Carlos Williams said? "When I am alone I am happy."

Monday, November 17, 2014

"Originality is Impossible"

One of the most interesting professional tensions that I experience in my work as a coach is the resistance of anthropologists to my ideas about the writing process. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised to find myself in a disagreement with an anthropologist about the nature of authorship itself.

Susan Blum has provided a useful summary of her distinction between the "authentic self" and the "peformance self" in the American Anthropological Association's Anthropology News (March 2008). Two things stand out for me. First, she casts the "anthropological" notion of self as a foil for the traditional "academic" sense of self. That is, she suggests that there is a tension between what professional anthropologists know to be true about the self and what academics in general presume about it. Second, and more worryingly, she believes that students, unlike their university teachers, are in possession of this anthropological truth about themselves. That is, the students, qua "folk anthropologists", are right.

In defending the "academic", "authentic" self let me begin with what I think is a common misconception among patchwriters about originality. Here's one of Blum's subjects, i.e., a student she talked to during her fieldwork:

Ideas are gonna get recycled. There’s no way that a hundred kids in a class could write papers with all fresh ideas. That’d be a hell of a class if you could. In fact, I’d be willing to say that no one—not even one student—will come up with something that’s never been come up with before. And that’s not an indictment of them, it’s just these ideas are all over the place.

Now, academics know this as well as any student. When teachers ask students to submit "original" work, they are not asking them to "come up with something that’s never been come up with before", they are merely asking them to submit for evaluation their own ideas, i.e., ideas that, whether actually "original" or not (in the hyperbolic sense invoked by the student), are ones they actually "came up with". They will have arrived at these ideas on the basis of their reading, and it's therefore important for the student to properly reference the reading they have done, leading up to the part that they came up with themselves, so that the teacher can assess their abilities and give them a grade. Now, if they pass off some part of their reading as their own ideas they are plagiarizing, cheating. The are pretending they came up with something themselves that they just read in a book. But the fact that the teacher already knows what the student has "discovered" is not in and of itself a strike against the student. It's only a problem if the student hides the source.

Originality in the sense of something "new under the sun" is of course very rare. But it is possible to distinguish clearly between what you have learned from reading and what you have thought out yourself. This is very important in school, where almost all of what you learn is already known to others. But it remains important in a research career where "originality" in the strong sense of making that rare "novel" contribution, depends on knowing what is already known.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Against Patchwriting

I've decided to confront the issue head-on, if only for the sake of clarity. So I'll just announce straight off that I am against patchwriting. I use that term in the sense coined by Rebecca Moore Howard: "copying from a source text and deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another" (Howard 1999: p. xviii). And when I say I'm against it I mean that I refuse to "celebrate" it as some writing instructors do:

Describing the textual strategies of Tanya, a student who in traditional pedagogy might be labeled "remedial," Glynda Hull and Mike Rose celebrate her patchwriting as a valuable stage toward becoming an authoritative academic writer: "we depend upon membership in a community for our language, our voices, our very arguments. We forget that we, like Tanya, continually appropriate each other's language to establish group membership, to grow, and to define ourselves in new ways, and that such appropriation is a fundamental part of language use, even as the appearance of our texts belies it" (152).

These and other studies describe patchwriting as a pedagogical opportunity, not a juridical problem. They recommend that teachers treat it as an important transitional strategy in the student's progress toward membership in a discourse community. To treat it negatively, as a "problem" to be "cured" or punished, would be to undermine its positive intellectual value, thereby obstructing rather than facilitating the learning process. (Howard 1995: 788-9)

I believe, in short, that patchwriting is a problem that should be addressed, even a disease that should be "cured", and in some cases a crime that should be "punished". Though I don't think it really is a "punishment", one simple technique here is to ensure that patchwritten work receives a lower grade. But this is where the "criminal element" comes in, because, like classical plagiarism, it is often not immediately apparent on the surface of the text. The first problem with patchwriting, like other kinds of plagiarism, is that it must be detected. Patchwriting conceals the relationship between one's own writing and the writing of others, and that alone should dampen any possible "celebration" of the student's accomplishment in this art.

The toleration—and encouragement, if that's what "celebrating" can be taken to imply—seems to be founded on a fundamental misunderstanding about scholarly writing, which is clearly on display in the passage I've quoted. It is simply not true that "we forget that we ... continually appropriate each other's language to establish group membership". Good scholars are constantly mindful of these acts of appropriation and therefore continually acknowledge their sources. There are acceptable ways of appropriating the work of others, namely, through paraphrase and quotation, always with adequate citation. There is no mystery (though there are of course a few subtleties) about how this is done, nor when it is done right.

I'll be writing about this in the weeks to come, mainly as a way of reflecting on the work of Rebecca Howard and Susan Blum, both of whom I've written about before. Like I say, I'm going to be taking a hard line on this, mainly in the interest of being clear. Let there be no doubt that I think patchwriting is a problem, and one we need to do something about. It is no more "an important transitional strategy" toward mastery of scholarly writing than any other form of plagiarism, nor does it have "positive intellectual value". True, like plagiarism in general, it does offer a "pedagogical opportunity", or what we also sometimes call a "teachable moment", but only in the sense that it provides an occasion to talk about intellectual honesty. Patchwriters are faking their linguistic competence, and they must be told that that is what they are doing, and that that is the opinion competent scholars form of them when they discover the real source of their language.

It's not, I should add, just a problem among students.

Update: it's not a coincidence that I'm returning to this subject today. Andrew Gelman had warned us that a post about this was "on deck" today. And sure enough: here it is.