originality

Perpetuating myths of originality (Goldsmith responds)

screen shot from "paper mill" web site offering papers on Wallace Stevens for sale

Kenny Goldsmith responded to my blog entry from a while back, entitled "5-page paper on Stevens, yours for just $59.75." Here's what Kenny writes:

Some time ago, you blogged about the conundrum of finding a paper mill selling an interpretation of Steven's poem "Mozart, 1935," which might have incorporated your own work on this subject into it, a remix of your own words. You say, "Is it possible that I would have been buying a hack-job remix of my own article on the poem?" You then go on to say that "I think I would have asked for reimbursement from my university-sponsored research fund for this expense. After all, it would have been research. No? How desperate would a student have to be to use one of these sites?"

My answer is not desperate at all. In fact, each semester, I force my students to purchase a paper from paper mills and present it as their final project as if they wrote it themselves. Each student must stand up in front of the class and present it with such irrefutable conviction as if they themselves wrote it and truly believe every word of it. Failure to do so convincingly results in group censure from the class, and ultimately in a lower grade.

The kernel of how we must teach today is embedded in your quandary. By reifying the old lines of "this is mine" and "this is not," we perpetuate myths of originality. Was your research sprung completely from your own genius? Most likely not. You sourced it from dozens of places. What is original -- and genius -- is the way you wove those sources together. But isn't that what good research always has been? It's just that the digital makes this process transparent and eminently elastic in ways that were hidden before.

Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term "unoriginal genius" (the title of her forthcoming book on the subject) to describe a new tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that due to changes brought on by technology and the internet, our notion of genius -- a romantic isolated figure -- is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one's mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined a term, "moving information," to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing and maintaining a writing machine.

It's time to let go of notions of propriety and ownership of language, particularly in university situation where there is a subsidized economy. None of us are writing for profit -- we are subsidized by research funds and university positions -- and are thus obliged to take the most theoretically radical and experimental positions possible. Imagine if other research wings of universities such as science labs took the safe and known ways? They certainly would be upbraided for not taking chances. Why can't we do the same?

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Now my reply to Kenny's reply:

I'm sort of hoping that the parents of our students will see the $59 charge on their sons' and daughters' credit-card bill, and a discussion of this purchase will ensue. In such a conversation--I'm imagining it taking place over the Thanksgiving dinner, with Aunt Minnie and Uncle Schloime listening in--Kenny's teaching will spread like waves across the pre-postmodern generations, the tuition-paying traditionalists who thought that by sending their kids to an Ivy League school they were escaping unoriginality rather than venturing to its center.

Anyway, the tone of my blog entry was all wrong, as I can see upon re-reading, and I think threw Kenny off. I find the fact of a $60 five-page paper on Wallace Stevens absurd and I'm not primarily concerned about the fate of my own academic writing in the world of digital copying. Really. I don't disagree with Kenny--as he knows--about remix. I don't fear it and I have very little concern about owning my interpretation of a poem by Wallace Stevens. It was my hook, my start on writing about the topic. Already not a fan of the grade-giving and grade-getting system of higher education (a view to which this blog amply testifies), I'm bemused by the lack of consciousness and laziness of people in that system feeling the need to pay top dollar for a dumbed-down academic remix. A little bit of work of could have produced the same (I mean even a remix) for free. You see, that's where we begin to see differences between Kenny's uncreative writing course and the paper mills he seems to favor (he doesn't really favor them--imagine him and the purveyors of such a venture in the same room!--but his position necessitates that he be annoyed by people annoyed by them). Kenny's students are (to say the least) extremely conscious of the aesthetic or anti-aesthetic (but that's still an aesthetic) of the sampling, and the violation of conventional values--a violation felt as such by the giant middle on the spectrum running from cool anti-authorial stealing to lazy pirating advantage-taking profiteers--is material for his pedagogy and their learning. He "forces" them to engage in such violation and it's the beginning of their venture into the art world. Kenny and his students, brilliant in their creative uncreativity, are doing one thing, which I admire and literally support. And his world is energized by its all being free. A gift economy thriving on the new digital world in which authorship has happily disappeard. I'm there too. But the purveyors of the paper mill have created something that is the opposite of the gift economy, and the result is an uncreative uncreativity that only very very superficially befits the world Kenny enjoys living in.

To me, this is all about pedagogy and the fate of higher education. I adore the energetic, intense, resourceful (that's, by the way, another word for creative) not-lazy students who are self-consciously participating in the lazy buy-your-papers economy. I don't adore students for whom this process is a matter of sheer unselfconscious ease. The former is learning, being part of a community of learners (such as in Kenny's amazing classes), and it is always, always a rigorous uncreativity. The latter are mere corner-cutters, seeking the easy. I have little time for them. What Kenny and his students do is not easy--seems easy, but isn't. Let's make that distinction.

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