Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mixing or Plagiarizing?

I doubt anyone was thinking about plagiarism when the CCCC 2010 theme, “The Remix: Revisit, Rethink, Revise, Renew,” was chosen, but given recent events in Germany literary world, plagiarism clearly fits the focus.

News articles last week announced that German teen author Helene Hegemann of the highly-acclaimed debut novel Axolotl Roadkill not only lifted passages from another novel, copying as much as an entire page with only minor changes, but she also denied that such copying was plagiarism. Her explanation, described in the New York Times’ article “Author, 17, Says It’s ‘Mixing,’ Not Plagiarism,” is simple and straightforward:

Although Ms. Hegemann has apologized for not being more open about her sources, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.

Mixing, for Hegemann, is borrowing from others and reshaping or fitting the borrowed text to create some new document. In music, mixing might involve borrowing a musical riff and then incorporating it in a new piece as a recurring theme or starting point for further variations. In literature, mixing might be taking a passage or scenario and rethinking it as part of some new text.

A blog entry on Hit & Run: Reason Magazine provides more details on Hegemann’s motives:

In comments to Buchmarkt, Hegemann cops to “ruthlessly robbing my friends, filmmakers, other writers, and myself,” but only in the context of a collaborative-creation model (leaving out the vexatious details about who gets paid when the collaboration is done).1

While it feels new to many of us, this kind of artistic theft has been around for centuries. Chaucer was remixing The Decameron in his Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare borrowed from any number of Italian renaissance texts. There’s more to mixing then just copying and pasting though. To be effective, the new use should go beyond the original, perhaps commenting on it or rethinking the original piece. T.S. Eliot, surely the Grand Mix Master of Modernism, wrote:

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. (“Philip Massinger,” The Sacred Wood: : Essays on Poetry and Criticism)

Does Hegemann’s mixing pass the test? Is she simply stealing, or is she rethinking and revising the text she borrows in a way that makes it better or different? Critics are split on the issue.

The Guardian suggests that Hegemann simply does not understand what she has done—“To her, coming from the cut-and-paste world of blogs and Facebook, what she's done is no more than ‘mixing.’” Student journalists label Hegemann’s copying as blatant plagiarism in the Indiana Daily Student and the Baylor Lariat Online. The comments on the New York Times’ Learning Network blog entry “What Are the Attitudes Toward ‘Cheating’ and Plagiarism Among Your Peers?” extend the discussion.

The situation is ripe for class discussion, but ultimately there are few conclusions. Is it mixing or plagiarism? I can’t be sure. I don’t read German, and I don’t have the two books. As a teacher, I know that simply adding a bibliographic citation doesn’t make it okay to insert a full page from another text into your own draft. But what would make such borrowing okay?

I keep returning to Eliot’s explanation. Borrowing may be okay if one works as Eliot’s good, mature poet. If a writer revises a text in a way that creates “something better, or at least something different,” perhaps it truly is mixing. Anything else, for me at least, seems like pale imitation at best and, quite possibly, plagiarism at worst.

Mixing or plagiarism? The one thing we can be sure of is that there many questions to consider, at CCCC in Louisville and beyond.


For more information on discussing plagiarism in the classroom, see “What’s the Best Plagiarism Detector?” and “Why I Don’t Worry about Plagiarism.”


1 I do not read German, so I’m quoting from various blogs and news articles online that have translated Hegemann’s comments, rather than taking passages from the original.


mj hollman said...

I thank InBox for featuring this article and for your discussion. I had never thought of the practice of "sampling" in the music world as plagiarizing -- maybe I should have. I think I expected that experienced listeners would know the allusion (still another way to think about this issue?)so that made it okay. This is a practice i know of from dance, also.
It's a bit of a giggle when the young novelist says that nothing is original, it is only authentic. Reminds me of what I think was our first Doublespeak award when a general said, "It's not bombing -- it's air support." Maybe a sardonic giggle.
How extended does it have to be before it passes from "sampling" to plagiarism?

Misslisslee said...

Great comment, mj - it seems that rather than 'extended', the borrowing has to be passed off as one's own original work. The reporting I have seen mentioned that the original author wasn't credited in the first edition, so it feels more like a big smokescreen to cover up a theft than a borrowing. An author who was comfortable with the mixing should have had no problem freely owning the contribution of the original author.

Unknown said...

The world of difference between the allegations and admission from Ms Hegemann and the examples used to help her make her argument (something we're all too ready to do these days) is that musicians who "sample" are spinning records that get attribution and others who are re-imaging songs still use the song's original title. TS Eliot et al didn't steal entire poems word for word. They stole ideas or images. The idea behind such "riffs" is to include the alluded to argument in the piece being offered. Whenever "cut and paste" is involved, plagiarism is endemic, especially without references. What Shakespeare did in his day was no more than what John Gardner did ours. Shakespeare wasn't fooling people in his day that he made those plays up from scratch anymore than John Gardner did with Grendel.

"Sampling" is quoting or referring, and it happens all the time in essays and books, and references are traditionally given. I think of epigrams to chapters or references to popular music in period pieces. What is Ms Hegemann offering us that isn't an excuse for theft at the worst and intellectual laziness at the least? The ability to simply "copy" has always been available to us, even without computers. We should not let ourselves think that anything is substantively different because technology now makes it easier. Easier is probably worse because copying by hand might have led to accidental learning.

While I can certainly agree with Ms Hegemann's assertion about originality (nothing new under the sun) and authenticity (this is me talking), I don't think she can be considered authentic when the words are not her own.

tengrrl said...

BenK, one of the commenters in the NYTimes "What Are the Attitudes" piece really nailed the difference between what I'd think of as successful sampling or mixing for me. He said: "The issue, I think, is that in collage, mashups and sampling, the very concept is that the viewer – at least the knowing viewer – should recognize the reference clearly. It becomes homage, or critique, or parody – there is no need for a citation. There is no claim that this is original."

It's not just that the sources need to be recognized in some kind of citation, but also that for the text to be successful the reader has to recognize the sources too. How would a parody be successful if you never knew the original, for instance?

Even if I can forgive Hegemann for copying w/o attribution, I can't label her work as a successful mix when no one readily recognized her source until the scandal broke.

pamelas said...

When we are engulfed steadily by waves of media and verbage, how can we avoid confusing our own thoughts with the debris of that textual and hypertextual reality we are swimming in around the clock? How can we distinguish any more between our own ideas or even our own words and those we are repeating or borrowing? This notion of originality brings to mind Bloom's ideas about originality and borrowing, that only a few minds are "strong" enough to inspire all of the others. I don't see those "orginal" voices as "strong" so much as enjoying some kind of privilege, or emerging in a context that permits them to speak over the others. When you are swimming in so much media, how can you avoid making continual allusions, intentionally or not?