Friday Takeaway: Plagiarize This!

Published: 5/18/2018 10:00:52 AM

A few weeks ago, I gave my students a special assignment: to plagiarize a text, whichever they chose, with the expressed intention of improving it. By improving it, I meant re-purposing it, giving it a distinctly new taste.

The assignment was part of a course called “Impostors,” in which the class delved into the twisted mechanisms through which all kinds of people eclipse their own selves, deliberately and otherwise, in favor of other identities. These include actors, immigrants, spies, ventriloquists, prophets, translators, Jews passing for Christians, whites for people of color and vice versa, individuals with mental illness, and so on. 

Throughout the semester, I argued that although we are educated to believe each of us has a distinct personality — that we are unique and therefore different from everyone else — the fact is that, on a single day, we become all sorts of people, varieties of our selves, if you will.

Plagiarists, of course, are prime examples of impostors. They steal other people’s ideas, and the words that dress them, presenting them as their own. I wanted to make clear to the students that, while certain types of plagiarism are frowned upon, plagiarism as an overall attitude is an essential component of a creative thinker’s profile. 

Consider the nature of imitation and the role it plays in human development and in our modern conception of genius. 

Imitation is a feature of life. Children learn from mirroring the behavior others. But there is a difference between mimicking, imitating, and what is known as mimesis, a word from the Greek verb mimeisthai that’s used to describe “representation or imitation of the real world in art and literature.” A novel or a film doesn’t just imitate reality; it injects an aesthetic component that turns it into an “alternative” to nature.

Mimesis is the work of genius, a term that is often misunderstood. It does refer to someone with qualities out of the ordinary but not because they are superhuman. A genius is an individual capable of reading the trends of the day and shrewdly identifying aspects of them that might be pushed forward in groundbreaking ways. That is, genius doesn’t suddenly descend out of the blue; it is bred in an environment in ways that, instigated by internal forces, triggers a new approach to things.

Concretely as well as metaphorically, everyone is a plagiarist because we copy from others — sounds, gestures, ideas — in order to exist in society. A run-of-the-mill plagiarist does nothing but appropriate without adding anything particular. In contrast, a creative thinker uses a pre-established model in order to turn it upside down, thus expanding our horizons.

For the course assignment, I specifically asked not to be given the basis of the plagiarized work. After all, that’s what a true plagiarist does: He attempts to erase all traces of the past, though the past somehow bounces back. I wanted to be able to identify on my own the sources of their sins.

The responses I got varied markedly. A few students turned the assignment into an excuse for laziness. One or two dramatically adapted a text — say, David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address — without adding much insight. Others were more adventurous. One pillaged a piece that showed up verbatim in front of me, except for a single strategically placed word at the end. The replacement of that word infused a fresh meaning to the original. The word was “you” instead of “me.” The story was one I myself had written called “A Heaven Without Crows,” about Kafka’s expressed desire to one of his friends to burn all his work after he died because he wanted to be forgotten.

In the end, the plagiarizing exercise was an opportunity to discuss ownership and what we mean today by copyright. The birth of copyright dates back to England in 1710. It gave authors ownership of their intellectual creation, laying out fixed terms on how to protect themselves.

Imitation was the sine qua non of the Middle Ages, when scores of religious artworks and panegyrics were so similar to one another. In the Renaissance, poets copied classical precursors like Cicero, Virgil and Seneca. Likewise, Elizabethan London was about the countless ways one could improve earlier renditions of a play; “Romeo and Juliet,” for instance, was based in part on an Italian tale translated into English in 1562, a fact that makes Shakespeare less an author and more a copyist.

Personally, I am ambivalent about copyright. I am pleased when my name is attached to what I write because that connection is an acknowledgement, but for me, once a piece of writing is published, to paraphrase Borges, it no longer belongs to me “but rather to language and tradition.” 

It is distressing the way we encourage the young to be wary of imitation. It should be the other way around: We ought to tell them plagiarize this, plagiarize that; for only through the absorption of how others communicate do we learn how to do it ourselves. Experimentation — the right to mess up — is what allows us to define our character. 

Among the pieces submitted by my students was a singularly exciting one. In it, the author, known to me for his brainy talents, plagiarized someone else’s boring reflections on a certain literary classic (Spain’s “La Cesletina”). I understood the piece to be a critique of what is known as academese. In my comments, I praised it as a delicious condemnation of mediocrity and gave it a high mark. It turns out the student had mistakenly emailed me the wrong assignment; the one I read was meant for another class and was in no way plagiarized.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.




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