Tan Lin

PLAGIARISM: A response to Thomas Fink

Firstly, I want to thank Tom for his thoughtful and provocative review. I have some queries to direct, so here goes.

Critical reading and rereading of the kind that Tom Fink outlines is useful as a practice, but it’s a relatively narrow practice, like footnoting, that is commonly situated in academic or high literature settings: in other words, directed at work that is meant to be read and reread. This is is part of the inverted mode of what Bourdieu has termed cultural or symbolic capital. So Heath is of course about that situation—it either emerges from that situation or else returns to it, and, in a quite selfish way, it generates cultural capital by design.

—Or else it makes gestures to something else. I wanted Heath to function at least partially outside of that rarefied world alluded to above, i.e., I wanted reading to be less not more narrow as a practice. I have linked this, in earlier work, to notions of ambience but here it’s directed at an array of reading platforms. I mean is there really a need for such a valorative distinction on two modes of reading or to bring them into an antagonistic (high/low; focussed/distracted) position? Who benefits from this? Can we really even make such a hard and fast distinction? I’m not positive. I was interested in pushing at this dichotomy because in my mind it is not a sufficient and necessary condition for providing whatever it is that reading is supposed to provide. I am not sure what reading is supposed to do or how it is supposed to do it. Is Heath literature? Is that the only framework that will work for it? I hope not. But of course, that is one of the frameworks that the book seeks to both address and get away from—the second revised edition might highlight this. Perhaps it should be called Heath/Coursepack. Of course, with every sort of publication or republication the nature of the material is changed as is the framing of its consumption. And of course, Heath has footnotes but they’re not really pointing to something elucidatory, something outside that can explain the text from the inside. They are more like street signs to something outside the text and they are a bit inert. But maybe this is no different from Eliot’s footnotes to The Waste Land, which are serious and a joke.

Maybe this is more easily stated this way, with the two statements separated by a /.

Reading Heath is HARD. It’s hard to parse, it’s hard to figure out what it “means.” / No, reading Heath is EASY. If you just relax a little and let yourself move freely through the text, if you skip over half of it because you already get it, which is what anyone does when they jump from one link to another link.

Of course, and here is the rub, reading Heath is difficult if you conceive of the book as the product of a unified sensibility, of “trying” to figure out how it all coheres (this Tom abandons in the first paragraph of his review) rather than as a series of loosely annotated notes to cultural production and reading practices conceived more generally or generically or ambiently. But Tom is correct in indicating that I was trying to move away from sustained, critical reading practices. Here I would add that I was interested in this gesture not because the latter has no use but because I think text production and reading have changed with recent text distribution practices, and have moved away from this model. Reading and writing have gotten easier to perform in a social space, i.e., a kind of reduce reuse recycle revise in the language ecosystem, so I was trying to align or even ally avant garde practice with what I see is an actual and contemporary sphere of cultural text production that is less hindered by notions of difficulty, perceived autonomy from the market/mass exchange forms, popular formats, and notions of individual ownership vis a vis intellectual property, etc. Certain ideas underlie Tom’s argument, and Heath questions those warrants. The issues alluded to above are hardly synonomous and they impact texts, all sorts of texts, in a complex array of ways. I simply wanted to ask: what happens when you bring notions of cultural distribution, social networking, dispersed multiple authorship into the sphere of difficult, serious, academic literature?

So to reiterate, the practice of focussed, critical reading is still useful, but under specific conditions and in specific reading formats. In any case, and Tom may or may not agree here, it is often tied to notions of an individual performing labor that either results in or is connected to something "original" and to specific kinds of "value" or cultural capital. I don’t object to close scrutiny or reading or whatever of material of the kind Tom mentions, but I think this too narrow a way to describe reading and textual processing, and it is liable to weakness when directed at "content" that is jointly produced or produced under socially networked conditions, content that is harder to classify as "original" or pleasurable—as opposed to, say, boring. So I am very interested in what I would term "social reading" on the periphery of one’s attention or something inexact like that. And this is probably because I have been distracted as a reader but I think all reading is reading with distractions. This is also true of BlipSoak01, which was written before most social networking technologies were developed. BlipSoak01 is very much the literature of distraction, the distraction of crossing a page. Ross Brighton has talked about some of this stuff in his review. Why not generate avant garde work that is easy and relaxing and mildly original? Isn’t that what most writers do anyway? Jerry McGann has written about expanding the book beyond notions of authorship and into what he calls the bibliographic condition, Matthew Kirschenbaum has called attention to forensic materialism vis a vis specific data storage platforms in relation to processing more generally, and Rachel Malik has written about the horizon of the publishable as an expanded frame for the understanding of text production. I would have to say that I was interested in doing something similar, but within the confines of a single book regarded as a relaxation parameter with a specific set of affordances. The project: relax the avant garde. Why? because the avant garde feels tired in its gestures, feels like it has to plagiarize to "make a statement." Or feels like it has to resort to appropriation as something incendiary, as something neo-avant garde and from an earlier era. But appropriation is no longer avant garde. It’s standard practice in and out of the classroom. Is appropriation in "experimental literature" still "experimental"? I don’t think so.

I wanted something—maybe it wasn’t even a book—that was freely acknowledged to be not an individual product and not laborious. There was a lot of labor employed to produce this text, but most of it wasn’t mine—it was outsourced, which is a perfectly legal way of getting someone else to do one’s work for one. You pay them for it. You circulate it to generate value. This is particularly true in the cultural sphere. Pepys’ labor is enormous vs Project Gutenberg’s. And their labor is greater than mine in copying and pasting their verison of Pepys’ text. Or is it? Thus, outsourcing, which is a practice for transferring labor practices to a place beyond the principal site of production is one way of recategorizing the kind of labor that is transpiring around the text. What is the nature of that value that is being generated and who is gaining it. It’s not so easy to say with Pepys’ Diary.

I think the more complicated issue here is that between plagiarism and appropriation. I feel that the use of appropriation is clouded by all sorts of neo romantic avant-garde practices and ideologies—and involves saying something like "look at me, I stole something" on the quasi-legal end of the spectrum and "look at me make something new out of something old" on the other end of the spectrum, though the latter has collapsed somewhat into the former. Appropriation is back in a major way, in the art world and in the poetry world and I started asking myself why. Reading, most reading, is easy and superficial, like appropriation. But I am interested in the manner of appropriation and the manner of reading. Viswanathan was working what would be considered, in an academic context, unoriginal material that had been, according to Tom, "reset" for a different sector of the chick lit audience. But I think it is interesting that Viswanathan took a prevailing mode and fitted it to a different ethnic group. However, she should have made that gesture more obvious and thus more about manipulating material rather than simply opting for a rather short-sighted and simple-minded financial gain/source of value. But the gesture is interesting. I think it’s too bad that Salinger has tried to repress publication of a book about Holden Caulfied as a 78 year old. By the same token, Shakespeare could have prevented Stoppard from writing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Really, I like appropriation but it’s only appropriation, it’s only what most people do most of the day anyway. The only reason Viswanathan was prosecuted was because she generated detrimental reliance. If she had done this in an experimental writing circle, if she had announced she was using someone else’s material, and altered the material more in the taking and retrofitting for a different ethnic group, she would not have been subject to media outcry and the book wd have been published, probably generating her significant cultural not to mention real capital—within the experimental writing scene and beyond it.

This leads to a recognition: today, appropriation, in the experimental literary and in the art world, tends to dramatize itself by calling itself "plagiarism" even though it is just plain appropriation or unacknowledged citation. This is why I put plagiarism in the title. As Tom points out, it’s a specious claim. And this is not avant garde appropriation anymore, because it simply isn’t shocking anymore. So here is I think my biggest point of disagreement with Tom. Europe by Ashbery was shocking to contemporary readers (I am sure there are many readers out there who still think it is an anomaly in the Ashbery canon) and Duchamp’s placing of a urinal at the Society of Independents was shocking and it outraged a lot of individuals. Certainly my students do a lot of it and if it weren’t for Turnitin I wouldn’t know about it. But I am not outraged by it. Appropriation per se is no longer shocking—it is just part of our reading cultural environment where information is exchanged continually and for the most part freely. Heath is not meant to be shocking or hard to read. It may not even be literature, at least the type of literature that Tom is lobbying for. It may just be a platform, like the web, or like an index card, or like a footnote to something hors texte. I wanted to extroject literature, maybe even serious literature, or maybe "less serious" literature, into a larger reading/cultural environment to see what would happen. And the answer is: probably very little!

I think in the end, however, the originality/pleasure nexus still matters to Tom more than it does to me. I’m not against the coupling per se, but I think originality can be modified, as both a concept and as a material constraint, in useful ways. And as I’ve said I’ve tried to do originality/boredom as a nexus. I broached this issue in 2003, in the “Preface Duration” for BlipSoak01 so I’ve been interested in boredom as it relates to everyday reading practices for quite some time. Ditto with issues having to do with copyright. I am not against copyright protection and Viswanathan’s gesture involves deceipt for market gain. But I am happy to have Heath rewritten, reused, repurposed, remediated according to the Creative Commons license. There is a copyleft notation for Heath, and this legal notice is binding: work may be used, appropriated, rewritten, as long as the original author is cited, and as long as the person who resuses the material grants the same rights to the next user. This is a relaxed copyright rule but it is not the absence of copyright, and concepts of plagiarism are still viable under this rubric. Notions of "theft" and "originality" and "authorship" are relative, and Heath is about those fluid boundaries. Once a copyright date has expired, what was theft in one year, is not, legally speaking, theft, the very next year.

(Editor's Note: Thomas Fink's piece on Plagiarism/Outsource can be found here.)

Tan Lin is the author of Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe, BlipSoak01, ambience is a novel with a logo, and Heath: Plagiarism/Outsource. 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004 The Joy of Cooking is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. He is the recipient of a Getty Distinguished Scholar Grant and a Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writing Grant to complete a book on the writings of Andy Warhol. He has recently completed a sampled novel, Our Feelings Were Made By Hand. He is an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at New Jersey City University.

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