Friday, February 19, 2010

Update on Barthes.

The Shanty Blog makes its way further into the blogosphere! You may remember an older post on Roland Barthes (not the video artist, but the semiologist). I've been working around this idea of taking something and making it mean something else, and I wanted to use the post as an introduction and as a reference point.

Internally, it's been pretty dormant. Which is why I was thrilled to come across Snarkmarket's post on T.S. Eliot, literature and plagarism. The post comments on a story from The New Yorker, "T.S. Eliot Was Wrong" concerning the entry by Helene Hegemann (a 17 year old German writer) of a book partially composed ("mixed," in her words) of other authors' works in the Leipzig Book Fair. She's a finalist for a $20,000 prize. Not surprisingly, many are pissed to hear that she's even being considered. Ellis compares Helene's work to plagarism:

In most universities (hopefully all universities), plagiarism is an offense punishable by expulsion. Does this mean that if a student rips whole pages from Adam Smith for his paper on capitalism without citing or crediting the work he shouldn’t be penalized? That his action should be understood merely as “mixing” Smith’s statements in with his own? Surely not, and the same rules should apply to any other printed text, whether it’s a newspaper article, a screenplay, or a coming-of-age German novel.

Though Helene apologizes for not initially disclosing her sources, she defends her work as that of "a different generation," a "youth culture of D.J.'s and artists that sample freely and thereby breathe creativity into old forms." Without commenting on the artistic value of her particular work, Helene joins a tradition that's much older than she apparently realizes.

Lit geeks may remember T.S. Eliot's famous observation that "immature artists imitate, mature poets steal" (Ironically, or perhaps just immaturely, Ellis complains about a copying practice in the same breath that he botches the practice's most notable justification. On second thought, the dude's writing for the New Yorker. It's definitely ironic). Even further back, just compare Beethoven's Pathetic Sonata to Luigi Cherubini's Medea and you can see that even classical composers borrowed from one another in the same way that modern jam artists do today (ahem, SCI's "Rivertrance" is basically the old irish tune "Gravelwalk" played barefookt with a fiddle. Go ahead, check it out).

Snarkmarket rightfully comments that Ellis is overreacting:

I agreed so much I copied the shit out of it right here for you. And given the subject matter, I couldn't help but toss The Shanty's two cents into the mix:

But my comments are awaiting moderation.

So there you have it. The Shanty's penetrating the blogosphere (after moderation!)! And a bunch of other stuff that you're probably not interested in.


  1. Nice post, Rusty. I enjoyed the earlier post summarizing Barthes and Saussure as well.

    It would be premature to defend Hegemann having not read her book and seeing the extent and use of copying, but from the examples in the NYTimes article it definitely seems Ellis is overreacting. One example -

    Or as one character, Edmond, puts it in the book, “Berlin is here to mix everything with everything.”

    A powerful statement, but the line originally was written by Airen, on his blog.

    - doesn't seem like it would raise an eyebrow if the comment being co-opted was more well-known.

    This might actually become more of a problem as our society or our sub-cultures begin to get more and more fragmented. James Joyce would never have to cite that Stephen Daedalus is quoting Shakespeare in Ulysses, but will it be necessary for someone to cite Manderfeld quoting from The Big Lebowski? Maybe for the reader's benefit, but I can't imagine how much exposition I'd have to pack into just one conversation in order for someone who is not fluent in the cultural touchstones that my friends all share to understand the subtext. Fiction books will begin to have reference pages as large as non-fiction books, like liner notes in hip-hop albums listing where every sample originated from. Or maybe, with the advent of e-readers, every bit of recycled material will be hyperlinked to the source. To use Ulysses again, Joyce wouldn't have to consistently reference imagined newspaper articles and horserace outcomes from June 16th, but use the actual articles and the actual races. I don't know if that would add or detract from a novel, but I don't think a newspaper reporter should feel his work plagiarized in that instance, even if his name is not cited within the novel. I don't know if I personally would want to read something like that, but I don't see how it would be wrong to write something like that.

    This reminds me of the argument David Foster Wallace makes in E Unibus Pluram that "the belief that images are basically just mimetic devices" is something that separates younger writers from the generation that precedes it. That television, for young people, is a part of our reality - not something just to look at - and to ignore television and advertisement and products (and what they signify about the buyer/user) would be to ignore how we interact with the world (which makes his professor's insistence to avoid "trendy-mass-popular-media" incomprehensible to DFW and his fellow students). Anyway, I could see the internet doing the same thing for words, data, ideas - I mean, just look at this blog post. We don't just passively interact with words; we cut/paste, copy and link to, share our thoughts about a book we haven't read with people we haven't met, etc...

    One last thought - you might be interested in this recent article from The New York Review of Books that makes the argument that the globalization of literature has made writers generalize their books to the point where a lot of local color and cultural distinctiveness is wiped away.

    "Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader."

  2. Why aren't you on The Shanty? You wanna send me your email address?