July 30, 2012 by Marcus Speh
I’ve only just heard about the plagiarizing/fabricating scandals involving Jonah Lehrer. It is, from the point of view of a German speaker and teacher, unfortunate that his surname in German means “teacher”. Though it may be meaningful, since he obviously had to teach us something, something many of us already knew: namely that even in the metaverse original content has a special value. Since the metaverse is supposed to be a greater mind space that includes the known universe, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the extra space consists of rehashed, or, as Dustin Kurtz of Melville House calls it, ‘repurposed’ content (what a terrible word!). Of course, this isn’t true. There is plenty of original thought and creat ivity to be found on the Internet. But there’s also a small group of profiteers, who probably like to think of themselves as ‘intellectual entrepreneurs’, who are lacking the basic respect of other people’s word work - plagiarism – and the reader’s justified expectation that anything announced as original is actually original – self-plagiarism; Lehrer was found guilty of both. This respect is basic, because it has formed the basis of creative communication since the beginning, and it is probably not too far-fetched to call it a cornerstone of humanity.
In Germany, we’ve had two widely published scandals involving plagiarizing politicians in the past year. The name of one of these, Karl Theodor Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, has become synonymous with plagiarism over here. My students will assure me “we are not pulling a Guttenberg,” (said without the undeserved academic title and without the inherited aristocratic title, notice), meaning that they will be extra careful in accounting for references and sources. Incidents like the Lehrer scandal undermine recent developments towards open science, which involves putting out one’s ideas and research directly and openly to everyone, and not just in principle, as it’s been done since the 1600s, but already in early stages of the work, on the Internet. And then Guttenberg, Lehrer et al come along to confirm the view that the Internet is mindless and somehow unworthy of serious consideration. This view is extended to online publication, blogs, and other virtual community work. It’s potentially damaging, especially because the word is the elementary particle of the web, not the image and not the sound. If like me you enjoy online communication and online publishing, and if you also have high hopes that this online world may grow and improve, as we ourselves improve, and as we improve our ways of dealing with it and living in it, then you may share my views on plagiarism and self plagiarism scandals.
Every week someone asks me if I’m not worried others might steal my ideas, words, stories, titles etc. because I put them out so freely and openly. I’m not worried, because I have too many ideas as it is, and I probably write too much as well… The scandals show that those who built a reputation, careers or even temporary advancement on the sweat of others cannot succeed in the end.
That’s enough for me, despite the case of German writer Helene Hegemann, whose book “Axolotl Roadkill” shot to fame in 2010 even though it quickly became known that she had plagiarized the work of at least two bloggers without attributing them. Little wonder that the then 17 years old author expressed no apology for appropriating other people’s thoughts (NYT: “author says it’s ‘mixing’, not plagiarism“): and a substantial part of the German literary establishment supported her case, perhaps influenced by the commercial success of the book. Once everyone talked about it, it became more difficult for the publishers and the critics to distance themselves: they’d been hungry for new trendy talent and had to feed.
Difficult for me to understand: the book description of the English translation, which is available since January this year does not in any way mention the history and debate around the German publication. As I understand it, later editions of the German original contain apology and corrections, including the statement:
“There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
Cute, but not good enough. Not even postmodernist icon Houellebecq (“This is part of my method“) would probably go this far, though he seems capable.
Even though it’s topologically hard to imagine, we all stand on each other’s shoulders: we constantly imitate and copy one another. When this copying is done by the unconscious, later, sometimes much later, to be turned into something idiosyncratic and original, or when it is consciously taken and openly worked into an original work of meta-art, then I’m happy. Because that’s the way I work, too. I hardly think there are other ways. But that’s different from stealing “in cold blood,” as it were. Perhaps Generation Z doesn’t like to distinguish between “mixing” and “stealing”, or perhaps they really don’t get the difference, but I think that the price of dropping the difference, especially of dropping it unconsciously, may be devaluation of the word and, consequently, devaluation of all the wonderful things that we can do with words when we’re serious about them. What do you think?
Update: there’s also a discussion at Fictionaut with additional arguments, viewpoints and stories. Worth checking out.