Creativity and Plagiarism

Read an article in Harper’s last night by J. Lethem called “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Lethem holds that all writing is essentially plagiarism in that we cannot be separated from the influences that have come before us. Consciously or not, other author’s wordings, forms, structures, ect., have infused our writing, inflused the very language. Rather than dread that influence, or be ‘anxious’ about it (yes, his title is a nod to Bloom’s foundational The Anxiety of Influence), we should embrace the richness of our language and realize how arbitrary such things as original ideas and copyrights are.

He calls his work “a plagiarism,” and at the end Lethem provides a key to where he *stole* many of his wordings and ideas from, an annotated list of misappropriation. Then he follows that with another key that points out the idea of an annotated plagiarism is not even his.

If no idea belongs to one person, if the language is to interpenetrated and mongreled, then why do we persist with the Romantic notion of authorship, with the idea that one person can create something original and then have the right to own that creation?

Maybe we want to believe that humans have the divine spark, the genius to create something completely new. Believing in that idea gives us more power. It robs some energy back from the so-called wilds of Nature and puts it back into human hands. We are afraid of the dark, the misunderstood and non-understood. More power means less fear of the unknown and unknowable.

The creative function, the author-function, even, also means that we are partially in control of our own destiny. It both affirms and denies the existence of God. It affirms it because if we are all cut from the same tree, as Emerson believed, then we can all emulate God in some limited capacity. We can create some things, though not all things. Yet the genius also denies God by robbing him of some power, by saying that this particular creation is of Man and exists outside the scope of what any God could have set down at the beginning of time. If he gave mankind free will, after all, doesn’t that include the free will to create something entirely new?

So we believe in authorship and originality because it gives us hope, on some basic level. I happen to thank that most things that please us do so because of very basic reasons–it’s just that those basic reasons have been covered by 10,000 years of social engineering and acculturation, until either the reasons become mysteries or myths. Either way, they are so deep that we seldom get just why we think a certain way. Hope is a positive feeling about survival, momentary comfort. When we are hopeful, we don’t have to worry about the future, because somewhere out there, the vital things are being taken care of.

So why not believe in genius and originality? What’s the harm in it?

The harm is commercialization, as Lethem tells us. He uses Disney as an example of a sort of copyright maven. The current copyright law protects a creation for the author’s life plus, I think, 70 years. Whenever Mickey Mouse is about to come out of copyright, Lethem points out, Disney is ready and waiting to renew it’s claim.

But what happens when something so controlled entwines itself with the language? While reading Lethem’s article, I was reminded of the film Full Metal Jacket. In that film, we are presented several references to Mickey Mouse, used to symbolize the abandonment of youth in the face of war and indoctrination in the Marine Corps. The drill sergeant often badgers the recruits by asking them, “What is this Mickey Mouse bullshit?” The film ends with the troops marching away from Hue city after a battle during the Tet Offensive, singing the song from the Mickey Mouse Club. These soldiers are still kids at heart, kids in the Heart of Darkness (and no, I don’t mean Apocalypse Now).

“Mickey Mouse,” as Stanley Kubrick’s film shows, has become a kind of synonym for childhood. “Disneyland” has become a symbol for a utopia, or in some cynics’ vocabularies, a manufactured utopia. Even “Disney,” of late, has become a word meaning something like “corporatized,” “commodified,” “mass-manufactured,” or “fake.” No matter how hard Disney attempts to copyright its literal images and names, the connotations related to it have become part of the way we speak and think. They can’t buy that. No one can.

But they try, all in the name of protecting their corporation’s image and profits. Public opinion is so important to the success of multi-billion dollar companies that the reputation of that company must be guarded at all times. Sure, the corporation caters to the public, but to a public that has been properly prepared to recieve its products, to a public that will not sue a beloved symbol or misuse it in a way that would harm it or, most importantly, make money from it–money that is not going into the coffers at Mother-Disney.

I may pick on Disney, but that’s only because it’s easy. It’s a big target. There are myriad other targets out there worthy to stand in for Disney here.

Despite all this corporate protection, we still value a good recycling. Saturday Night Live, despite constant comparisons to its legendary first seasons, remains popular. Mad magazine, the home of juvenile parody, the Daily Show, The Onion… All are very good at pretending to be something they are not. The adult cartoon series Family Guy thrives on pop-culture references. They satirize the world around them by emulating it, through hyperbole. And we eat it up.

So we value originality when it makes us think (a la compelling novels or essays and poems) and recycled orginality when it makes us laugh (satire, parody). But what about recycled originality that tries to be serious? Like Warhol’s famous painting of Campbell’s soup cans? The Internet-infamous Phantom Edit fan re-edit of Lucas’s Star Wars: The Phantom Meanace? These and others like them were serious works of art, created from an existing work or item. Do we value them as much as the originals? At all? Or are they just the result of struggling artists with a lack of creativity who must poach off others to make a dollar?

When seen in a different context, I would argue, everything is new. A soup can on the store shelf is a different creature than one in a pop-art painting. The performances in a motion picture which is freely available for home purchase are one thing in the director’s eyes and something completely different in the eyes of a dedicated fan or an academic who might exerpt or recycle certain parts or scenes or the entire film. Context provides the definition, and since the contextual links (a term from Landow or Bolter for hypertext, I believe) are infinite and untraceable, every instance of a work is unique.

But that doesn’t matter to the law. The law works with those influences that are traceable, with those who make money unfairly off the work of others. The law does not recognize that true genius is the abilty to work with the threads that already exist, however worn and used they are, to weave something different, new but not not original.

Does this eliminate the idea of originality? In a sense, but that doesn’t mean that the world is over. That doesn’t mean that we are at a stagnant point in human creative evolution. Remember what I said about everything being reliant on those buried, corporeal concerns? Look at it this way:

There are a limited number of atoms on this earth. They have been here since humanity rose from the waters and they will be here until we sink into the mire (unless we blast some of them into space with nuclear bombs…). All of our experience is based on what we see made out of those atoms: other people, fishes, cars, iPods, candy hearts, phonebooks, etc… Our amount of creativity is fixed, limited by the atoms we have been given to experience or hear about in our lifetimes. Creativity, then, is just the constant recombination of those existing atoms into new and different forms. Like energy, creativity can be neither created nor destroyed, only manifested in new and exciting forms.


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