Monday, November 16, 2009


I'm not nearly as pessimistic as you seem to be. I reckon we'll continue generating fresh content for millennia to come. Ideas are plentiful, and new combinations thereof even more so. Leave them alone, and they will come home, wagging their footnotes behind them.

Jolisa Gracewood

Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research.

Wilson Mizner

The French poet and critic Pierre Menard (d. 1939) has left us a small and largely unremarkable body of works, save for one that is of peculiar but enduring interest - a contemporary critic called it in fact ‘perhaps the most significant writing of our time’: his fragments from Don Quixote. In this undertaking, Menard set out not to update or revise Cervantes’ source, that is to say write a contemporary Quixote, but rather compose the Quixote itself, and not simply by copying it, either, but rather by producing a number of pages which coincided word for word and line for line with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

Initially, Menard's method was to be relatively simple: Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or the Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 onwards - in other words be Miguel de Cervantes, but he discarded it as too easy. Being somehow Cervantes and arriving thereby at the Quixote: that looked to Menard less challenging (and therefore less interesting) than continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.

The result, while verbally identical to the Cervantes text, is almost infinitely richer. Cervantes, for instance, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):
...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.
Written in the seventeenth century by the “ingenious layman” Miguel de Cervantes, this strikes us as a merely rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes the following:
...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.
History, the mother of truth: the idea is exceptional. Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as a delving into reality but as the very foundation of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not “what happened”; it is what we believe happened. The final phrases - exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor - are brazenly pragmatic, and yet so richly suggestive for those who seek to understand what came after, the postmodern and our most troubled dealings with history and the past.

But Menard’s example says a thing or two about authorship, as well. The news media and a fair chunk of the blogosphere in New Zealand have been preoccupied over the last ten days or so by the discovery by Jolisa Gracewood of a number of unacknowledged quotations from various sources in Witi Ihimaera’s latest novel, The Trowenna Sea. When put in front of the list of correspondences found by Dr. Gracewood, Ihimaera swiftly apologised and volunteered to submit himself to arbitration with his employer, the University of Auckland. Yet he was adamant in his contention to the New Zealand Listener that he hadn’t committed plagiarism, but merely a series of ‘oversights’, and the University quickly reached the same conclusion, as did his publisher. We look forward to the second edition - which will no doubt rectify these lapses - and move on, for there is nothing to see here.

Or is there?

The discussion at Public Address following Jolisa’s two successive blog posts on the subject (here and here) was decidedly and in some respects surprisingly lively, as were the interjections of some who wished to reflect more broadly on contemporary notions of authorship and originality across different media. More particularly, David Cauchi made a case for painting and Philip Matthews another for film, inviting the rest of the commenters to ponder the following question: are the domains of literature, criticism and journalism clinging to antiquated notions of what constitutes creativity, and how originality should be measured and understood?

Consider what my alma mater has to say on the subject of plagiarism:
Plagiarism undermines academic integrity simply because it is a form of lying, stealing and mistreating others. Plagiarism involves stealing other people’s intellectual property and lying about whose work it is. This is why plagiarism is prohibited at Victoria.
Intellectual property, that is to say the private ownership of words and ideas: it doesn’t sound like the kind of relationship with knowledge that a place of higher learning ought to foster, does it? Besides, how do you even steal words, or ideas? They are hardly gone after you have taken them. How about ‘lying about whose work it is,’ then? Perhaps that’s the crux of the matter. Producing knowledge requires an effort, is work. If anybody could simply claim the credit for the work of anybody else then the knowledge industry - which is regulated by market relations that monetise this credit in various ways - would cease to function. But surely the social good lies in the knowledge itself, not in its attribution, and besides the example of the anonymous authors of so much oral poetry, traditional music and contemporary street art, it is quite possible to imagine a utopian socialist knowledge industry where ideas circulate freely, thus facilitating and accelerating the production of more knowledge.

Because in truth, how can you locate the point of origin of an idea or a certain sequence of words except in the culture itself? Roland Barthes, circa 1968, in 'The Death of the Author':
The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. […] [T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.
The following year, Michel Foucault began his essay 'What is an author?' by posing a question originally formulated by Samuel Beckett: 'What does it matter who is speaking?' to which Barthes had replied in advance:
writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

Now I don't want to reduce these two essays and their peculiar conversation to a couple of easy-to-digest snippets, nor ignore the specific historical and cultural conditions in which they were produced, at a time when what Foucault dubbed 'the-man-and-his-work-criticism' held full sway. But one could legitimately ask: if an understanding of intertextuality and the ideas of the death of the author and the author-function have been around for so long, why haven't they changed the way the publishing industry operates, or forced a rethinking of what constitutes plagiarism in publishing and academia? Is it simply a case of those critics and those ideas having been cast aside?

I would say yes, and no. On the one hand, yes, the publishing industry has changed its ways not a jot, nor did Barthes or Foucault themselves to my knowledge ever renounce their name on the cover or the customary protections and moral rights afforded to a published author. Ditto Ihimaera. Hell, even Bansky has claimed these, albeit 'against his better judgment'. But I think more profoundly the idea that authorship and its integrity matter has proved equally as resilient. Pierre Menard himself tell us that we can’t quite dispense completely with it - even as he goes about turning it upside down - by showing how differently we would have to read Don Quixote if we knew it to have been written by a 20th century Frenchman as opposed to a 17th century Spaniard.

Of course, you say? Well, yes. But consider how electronic writing and the Internet were meant to change all this, further unsettling traditional ideas concerning just who it is who does the writing and possibly killing the author all over again by circulating near-infinite variations on a near-infinite number of texts without a discernible point of origin, or a shred of attribution. This remains a source of anxiety, but I would argue it really hasn't happened yet. If anything, people who write on the Web have developed a whole new and highly sophisticated sensitivity towards issues of textual attribution and historicity. I've touched in the past by way of example upon the edit history of Wikipedia entries, which shows an attention to intricate philological issues on the part of a writing community that consists largely - and I mean this in the most non-derogatory way possible - of amateurs.

The vast majority of bloggers are also very careful to credit their sources, and the manner in which they do so is interesting, for the hyperlinks provided often point to the pages where each discovery took place. It’s only by means of further jumps, following an Ariadne’s thread of sorts, that one is likely to get to the source proper, the location where that particular text came to be. Or not, of course, there’s always the possibility that one or more of the pages might have expired by then, but that for once doesn’t matter: it’s in that pattern of connections, however provisional and unstable, that one can glimpse a new way of mapping the space where authorship and readership come to coexist.

I want to talk about this again, and to discuss what the author-function of a blogger, amongst others, might be. I suspect we’ll find it is highly plastic and I’ll go as far as to reserve a word to describe this, authoriety, an empty and extremely-unlikely-to-be-of-any-use-to-anybody term that perhaps some of you might help me fill - I have but vaguest of ideas at present, save for the fact that I think it would be an interesting question to explore.

But in the meantime, what of Ihimaera’s indiscretions? Would it even matter that he neglected to credit those sources, were it not for the legal framework within which the publishing industry operates, or the possibly antiquated notions of originality and individuality that we choose to entertain in this particular medium? I think that even under those conditions it does, it would. For crediting a source, the site where some particular words came together in the way that they did, means also preserving a trace of the text’s place within the culture that produced it, of its genealogy.

Consider a remote and fanciful future where Menard’s Quixote survived while Cervantes’ didn’t, and furthermore there was no knowledge that the earlier of the two books had even been written. This is the kind of loss - of metadata, of history, of memory - that you would be measuring every day.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, tr. Andrew Hurley. In Collected Fictions (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 88-95. I hardly need to point out that the contents of the post until the cover of Ihimaera’s novel are heavily plagiar… oh shut up it’s a mash up, okay? Anyhow, it’s all from Borges’ story, and it’s only seven pages long, so it’s not hard to figure out which words are mine and which are his (the good ones are his). Go read it. The young man in the picture at the top is JLB in 1921. He wrote Pierre Menard in 1939.

Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, tr. Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday, 1977), pp. 142-148. The text is available online here.

Michel Foucault, ‘What is An Author?’, tr. Josué V. Harari. In The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 101-120). Both quotations in the post are from p. 101.

Jolisa Gracewood, ‘Keeping It Real’, in The New Zealand Listener of November 14-20, 2009, pp. 18-19.

Guy Somerset, ‘The Incredible Likeness of Being’, in The New Zealand Listener of November 14-20, 2009, pp. 15-19.

Service announcement: I have uploaded on YouTube a video of the ending of The Truce covered in last week's post, followed by the lines that were left out in the film. But more importantly, you really should read the poem that Harvest Bird contributed last night.