Monday, April 09, 2018

Plagiarism and Ritual

1. In "the west" we understand plagiarism as misrepresenting "someone else's words" as "your own words," or putting your name on someone else's work.

2. The idea that you can "own" words is dubious, but the idea of putting your name on something someone else laboured over seems pretty clearly "wrong" to most of us educated in the western/north american liberal arts milieu.

3. There are many situations, in many cultures, in which social structures -- rituals -- call for the rote recitation of long "word-ensembles"*.

4. E.g., liturgies and standardized tests.

5. There may be ritualized situations which some of us would see as calling for "self-expression" in which others would see as calling for, essentially, recitation. Consider:

6a. An evangelical church I know recently featured a sermon which was mostly the pastor telling anecdotes about his life;

6b. a Catholic church I know recently featured a homily which the priest appeared to have found on the website of another parish and read aloud.


7a. When confronted with a standardized test or high-stakes writing assignment, I (and many of my students) generally attempt to produce something that I would characterize as "original," personal, in some sense made-up ex nihilo, inasmuch as this is possible, on the spot;

7b. when similarly confronted, some students I know will rely on a previously memorized essay read in a textbook or online, or will copy another student's essay, or pay someone else to write an essay**.

8. Whether a or b, in both situations, a ritual obligation has ben fulfilled: a sermon has been delivered. An essay has been written. What was called for has been provided.

9. One can easily generalize and say that the "white" / "english" /  north american Protestant way calls for "originality" while the "ethnic" / "non-english" non-western Catholic way calls for something where what is given is re-presented.

But the lines blur.

10. In both cases, genre expectations are fulfilled. Understandings of authorship may differ; the notion of the lone genius seems to loom larger in the imaginations of those who would lean A rather than B. But even in the case of A, there is much language-re-use, there are ritualized, reified moves. Even in the case of B, there are "individual" flourishes, customizations.

11. We all seem to know intuitively the demands of genre: rituals must be carried out. The essay must have an introduction, a conclusion. The meme must have this picture and this grammatical structure. But the rules of how 'originality' functions in the creation of texts are occluded to the point of being almost impossible to discern. Who am I to be "original?" I'm not God!  "I ain't never read my own words before!"

12. If I can't even tell you how my own writing is "original" and yours isn't, how can I ask you to do it my way?

*this term from the Catholic theologian Paul J. Griffiths' chapter "Kidnapping," a "theological defense of plagiarism."

** to be honest, I use the term "essay" extremely loosely here.