20090623

Thomas Fink


Tan Lin, plagiarism/outsource

In plagiarism/outsource Tan Lin presents a massive accumulation of language and graphics from diverse sources, nearly all available from the Web, including commercial ads (i.e. Jackie Chan hawking green tea mix), information for theatre programs at the Museum of Modern Art, blog, RSS, Facebook, and MySpace news about and reactions to the 2008 death of Australian actor Heath Ledger, material pertaining to the Gutenberg Project’s online version of Samuel Pepys Diary, and bits of academic articles. There are corporate logos, pictures of the drug Ecstasy, and a great deal of print common to internet platforms (and not books of poetry). Lin’s eight students in an Asian-American Writer’s Workshop are listed on the back cover, presumably as co-authors, and index cards with their personal information are reproduced, along with a few other references to some of them. My concern here is not to analyze the intricacies of the relationships between juxtaposed elements, but to ponder how the book addresses the issue indicated in its title.

In a passage following the French phrase, “hors-texte” (outside the text), probably an allusion to Derrida’s declaration in Of Grammatology of omni-textuality, the ability of all worldly events to be read, Lin or someone (let’s say, “Lin’s speaker”) seems to “confess” to plagiarism in a less self-accusatory passive construction and an odd use of a gerund clause: “numerous works were plagiarized while writing this text, in terms of ideas or turns of phrase, which the author attempted to imitate.” (Lin will not let me perform page-citation, as there are no page numbers. And it would be tedious for me to tell you repeatedly whether I am quoting from early or late in the book, or in the middle. Therefore, let’s forget about imagining that an argument “progresses” in this text.)

But does this “confession” of plagiarism stand, or does the text-assembler see himself as “outsourcing,” employing something or someone outside a previous context with remuneration? In “Tan Lin Interviewed” by Chris Alexander, Kristen Gallagher, and Gordon Tapper, Galatea Resurrects 12 (May 2009), an online exchange that, I am told, will become part of the next edition of plagiarism/outsource, Lin problematizes the notion of his authorship and, hence, of his “plagiarism”:
And I wasn’t trying to pretend that I was authoring the Heath thing [the book’s full title on the front cover includes “Notes Toward the Definition of Culture , Untilted Heath Ledger Project , a history of the search engine , disco OS” following what I take to be the main title], I just took it and pasted portions of it in, enabling its recirculation, which was its intent: to be seen by as many eyes as possible. Can material be plagiarized if there is no claim to authorship or if notions of originality and/or “literary” uniqueness are weakened or regarded as undesirable? . . . . It’s pretty clear that much of the material wasn’t written by me and this is reinforced by the copy and paste mode of design. . . . But am I violating some sort of copyright law here? Does the work deserve some other sort of citation format. . . ?
For Lin, “this touches not on who physically authors a text. . . but,” instead, on “who is more generally ‘responsible’ for certain texts,” something that can be “hard to see.”

If plagiarism profits a student or an author seeking market value on the basis of (faked) “originality” only if it is secret, one who is happily and openly derivative, not only of his sources, but of an experimental tradition of literary collage profits from membership in that tradition. Oulipo or LangPo practitioners do not hide their source-texts, and when Ashbery wrote “Europe,” the long poem in The Tennis Court Oath, about 50 years ago, he did not hide the fact of his direct borrowings from popular fiction and magazine articles when interviewed by David Shapiro, the first person to write a dissertation on him. However, as Lin’s speaker suggests, academic citation methods seem unnecessary: “since most sources have been rewritten and are no longer recognizable, the original page references are omitted or part of a page range that suggests” [not identifies] “the frame in which the passage was released into the present text. . . .” It is fair to say that experimental writers are appropriators and not plagiarists, but there is a passage in plagiarism/outsource indicating that Lin’s speaker might consider the distinction relatively unimportant in light of large cultural trends:
Both plagiarism proper (unacknowledged appropriation) and sanctioned appropriation redeem the individual from the market’s binding mechanisms. Much literature today is principally a rebranding or packaging device, as How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, textbooks, packaged books, and celebrity books all make clear.
Sitting next to the “sanctioned appropriation” of “textbooks,” Lin’s specific example of “unacknowledged appropriation” is deliberately provocative. In 2006 a Harvard undergraduate named Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel is cited above, was exposed as a plagiarist of extensive passages from the work of an established writer in the lucrative world of publishing for the adolescent market (and later, various others) and was drummed out of it. The plagiarizing author was “redeemed” as an “individual” from “the market’s binding mechanisms” only before she was caught. From what I can tell, Indian-American adolescent experience was “successfully” squeezed into the conventions of the (white and black?) young adult novel to achieve a temporary “rebranding” that, if sustained, could have enriched the author and her corporate sponsors. At the time, while understanding a little about copyright infringement, I remember thinking that Viswanathan’s plagiarism was probably just a repetition of already formulaic language and plot elements and, hence, not as distressing as the theft of intellectually and aesthetically energetic discourse.

If “much literature today” is comparable to Viswanathan’s approach, I would rather turn away from such a “majority” of texts than assert that the anti-market features of “plagiarism proper” can be celebrated rather than damned, because in this case, the plagiarist’s authorial desires existed strictly within a market-based context. Instead, I would focus attention on the “minority,” experimental literature that uses “sanctioned appropriation” creatively to generate a surplus of meaning or a dynamic indeterminacy out of “lifted” material. However, if I place too much emphasis on this distinction, I am ignoring the idea that Lin is developing a “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture” rather than justifying a canon, and to take such “notes,” what we traditionally think of as literature is too narrow a category upon which to focus.

While King Lear produced an accounting of his material and spiritual holdings in/on a heath ledger, the heath for which Lin accounts in this ledger is Web 2.0, and this is where the plagiarizing and/or appropriating individual’s “redemption” from the constraints of the market takes place: “. . . emails and SMS and text messages, . . . constitute an ever increasing proportion of today’s written universe, today’s affective ecology of language, and it feels very ambient to me. I mean, basically, one wants one’s feelings distributed” (“Tan Lin Interviewed”). In the contexts of “networked redistribution,” exemplified by YouTube and Facebook, “social networks become theatre and text reverts to the oldest forms of truncated, telegraphic, obscene, and ephemeral forms” (plagiarism/outsource). In the “visual performance theatre” of MySpace, a “version of digital romanticism,” “standardization and generic production are reprogrammed with ‘uncensored’ complexity, static, noise, difference, human hand, accidents, etc.,” and “creating content is less useful than passing on existing content or re-creating a context for re-use.” Thus, “plagiarism” is justified as “one parameter to define this recontextualizing mode. Ditto with outsourcing or image defamiliarization.”

It is hard to argue with the kind of democratization of culture that broadens accessibility of “existing content” without sounding like a hopeless fuddy-duddy or elitist. And the performance of “image defamiliarization” is part of a widespread championing of the experience of process over any static telos: “what is the effort of a language? something that disperses an image.” This continual dispersal is like the experience of surfing on the Web. But why does “creating content” have to be considered “less useful”? And why does Lin’s speaker have to call “originality. . . the last remaining waste product (muda) of creative practices,” an inefficient concept that should “be eliminated within aesthetic production and/or distribution systems”? This line of reasoning seems to posit re-creativity as the only possible creativity, as creators are always already belatedly situated in a textual milieu, and, furthermore, “everyone” is “an artist.” And if the concept of “originality,” implying an origin that is never present, is jettisoned and replaced by a process of ceaseless recontextualization—something like “what George C. Williams, the evolutionary biologist, describes as the principal functioning of the gene: ‘that which segregates and recombines with appreciable frequency’”—then the standards for ascertaining plagiarism seem irrelevant:
. . . in the end, plagiarism has costs that are nominal, illusory, and often gratuitous when stacked against the no-less illusory concept of “originality.” Regarded thus, plagiarism is a rear guard deterrent like the tactic of disabling right clicking on websites, both of which are designed to protect notions of originality that are presently in decline. What after all is the true economic “cost” of plagiarizing clearly unoriginal work whose value is increased not decreased by further (uncited) circulation patterns or by syndication across networks? Such activity should probably be regarded as value-adding rather than either theft (removal of value) or fraud (deception), the two crimes most closely associated with plagiarism.
If one plagiarizes from bits of internet text to which no one would assign literary or commercial value, these bits acquire cultural capital (not money for their anonymous authors) through “further (uncited) circulations patterns.” However, even though the assessment of literary value is fraught with imprecision, especially in its relation to concepts of originality, people will keep invoking it, tacitly or openly, in publishing, promoting, and rewarding some works and not others. What publisher will say that his/her criteria for selection are entirely arbitrary? In cultural products that do not strive to be “transparent” “communication,” judgment often comes from a minimal aura of originality within the juxtaposition of “recycled” parts. A (re-)creator who painstakingly composes a text with a particular pattern of recombination of sources in order to establish a value for his/her text that emerges from intersubjective social exchange is probably going to endure “value-subtraction” if someone else plagiarizes a large chunk of this work and receives recognition before the former’s accomplishment can be digested. Doesn’t such a cultural producer need protection against “theft” and “fraud”?

And yet. . . Lin as a reader may want to give up the temptation to judge literary value in order to enjoy a particular kind of reading/cultural reception that typifies web surfing:
People don’t read text so much as look at it or download multiple reading formats for text. Such practices are not new to ebook reading: skimming, fanning, page flipping, reading books about books, blurb reading, browsing or locating a book in a spectrum of colors, . . . or even simple forgetting, etc., constitute earlier non-reading, pre-digital formats of text processing.

Ebooks dramatize that no one reads a book word for word, where reading is regarded as a format of forgetfulness. Such a project, romanticized since the voice-to-scroll and scroll-to-codex transitions, was never accurate; the retina processes textual matter by silent reading, by jumping from one letter/word group to another in what are termed saccadic leaps. All reading is format-dependent scanning i.e. controlled forgetting.
Even Roland Barthes in his seventies classic, The Pleasure of the Text, confesses to the delight of jumping from one part of a “great book” to another. On the basis of talking to a number of my college students and reading earnest articles on multitasking in magazines like Time, I can acknowledge that this description of what many people often do while reading seems reliable. And the notion of “saccadic leaps” has scientific authority. Further, can anyone dispute that the reception of reading material is “format-dependent”? How could one imagine the absence of format? “All reading” surely involves the displacement of prior units in order to focus on the words that are present, and such “forgetting” is “controlled” to the degree that one voluntarily agrees to the “contract” of the temporal process of reading. Many readers might like to practice “controlled remembering,” but have a lot of trouble doing so.

Nevertheless, the “i.e.” generating a parallel in the above passage’s final sentence may occasion skepticism. Lin’s speaker’s rhetorical gesture—“all reading is. . .”—involves a “controlled” omission (encouragement of “forgetting”) of the possibility that the text can become an occasion for relatively slow reflection (even study) rather than semi-automatic sampling. One who wishes to read critically (or with old-fashioned aesthetic appreciation!) must compensate for the forgetting by rereading, which includes comparing/contrasting adjacent and distant passages.

At this late juncture, to try to shed some light on this omission of critical reading, I call attention to the “doctrine” of “ambient stylistics” in the introduction to Lin’s previous book of poetry BlipSoak01 (Atelos, 2003), because in the Galatea Resurrects interview, he invokes this concept while suggesting that plagiarism/ outsource “is about a softer, ambient avant-garde that works against radical disjuncture or the montage/shock effect,” which he considers “dated to a specific period of the historical avant-garde or the neo avant-garde. . . .” “To question some of these assumptions,” Lin seeks to produce “work that might be relaxing, boring, absorptive, sampled freely and without effort, easy, etc. This kind of textual material is appealing for reasons specific to particular text production and distribution formats.” Not wanting “this to be avant-garde,” the poet appeals to democratization of culture as “fresh air” (to cite Kenneth Koch or NPR): “I wanted YOU or me or her to read it like web surfing, or a mash up or something we do all day long, or like Pepys' Diary.”

For one thing, some may consider critical (re)reading more “relaxing” than the tedium of relatively unreflective perception of a stream of disparate sensory or textual data. And then there’s the matter of complex irony. Tan Lin, you dwell so often in your work at the meta-level and are preoccupied with the critique of orthodox “assumptions.” So do you always or primarily want to valorize effortless sampling as a reading practice over painstaking sociocultural reflection, long slow demystification (lsd), etc., or are you setting in motion an energetic antagonism between two or more modes? And do you consider these forms of nearly unlimited relaxation (and relaxation of deliberate critical faculties) a good baseline practice for our world citizenry, or are you tacitly exposing Web 2.0’s implications on your heath ledger so that others can experience surfeit and eventually mount their own critiques? Hold on—this is not an interview. I’ll just conjecture a both/and.



(Editor's Note: Tan Lin's response can be found here.)


Thomas Fink's fifth book of poetry, Clarity and Other Poems, was published by Marsh Hawk Press in Spring, 2008. His chapbook, Generic Whistle-Stop (Portable Press at YoYo Labs) appeared in early 2009, and another chapbook is scheduled to appear in the Fall. A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001) is his most recent book of criticism, and in 2007, he and Joseph Lease co-edited “Burning Interiors”: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics. His work is included in The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). He and Sonia Sotomayor spent four years on the same campus as undergraduates, but they probably didn't meet. Fink’s paintings hang in various collections.

 
 
 
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