pla(y)giarism versus plagiarism

Posted by @ 11:33 am on October 6th, 2010

Consider these two texts. The first was published on 28 June 2010 at Everyday Genius, the second was published yesterday at Metazen. The second author is very familiar with the first author.

The first text:

Rip off the wings of dragonflies

Rip off the wings of dragonflies, take their “spines,” their central lengths and a bit of paste, affix them down noses, between the eyes, one per customer. A dream.

The most important thing

The most important thing, about this pen, is to maintain inkflow: (the idea that) the ink must flow and continue flowing, at all times.

A Certain Angle

Remember, he said, when loaning it to me, this pen won’t write unless held at a certain angle.

It is said of the Emperor Fu Kang

“It is said of the Emperor Fu Kang: that He, with eyes unflinching, and a hand at peace, would have His enemies, and He had many, executed by decapitation. Further, that He would have their heads scooped out, embalmed then impregnated with magnet: the cavity that held the brain would be filled with iron, mined in the furthest West. During His ample leisure He enjoyed tossing these magnetized heads at a metallic surface. Actually in later years, with His son gaining influence, His Empire modernizing and so falling to ruin, this metal surface was often the door to an enormous refrigerator, then the largest to be found in the universe (opening it required two teams of oxen and an equator of rope). Inside this fridge the Emperor kept his foodstuffs, luxuriously imported at our expense, at a temperature most appropriate.”

The second text:

Look at the dragonfly

There it is, alighted, I hadn’t prepared before a dragonfly flew through my open window.

What is important?

What is important? I wrote, and then I thought, who wrote that?

An Angle

Over the phone, my father read me a prayer regarding remaining Nothing.

It is said of the 8th Dalai Lama

“It is said of the 8th Dalai Lama, Jamphel Gyatso: that he, upon the invasion of Tibet by Nepalese forces, escaped, and appealed to the Chinese government for help. And the Qianlong Emperor appointed Fu Kang’an commander-in-chief of a military strike against Nepal. And Fu Kang’an liberated Tibet and pushed back the Nepalese forces. The 8th Dalai Lama was said to sit in his bedroom daily, imagining the fighting and feeling gratitude for Fu Kang’an’s generosity. He tried to imagine the mind of a commander-in-chief, or of anyone who would fight to the death, who would kill others in the name of something. And the 8th Dalai Lama sat, and he sat, and he sat.”

Lance Olsen coined the term pla(y)giarism, which he’d playgiarized from Raymond Federman, but whatever way it’s spelled, it’s basically a clever name for appropriation. Back in the day, I used to teach pla(y)giarism to my fiction workshops. I used to make them appropriate texts.

But where does appropriation end and plagiarism begin? It would be one thing if second author had acknowledged the first author in the publication, but he doesn’t. And I’m not sure it would’ve mattered anyway.

OED says plagiarism is: The action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft.

Appropriation is: Art (orig. U.S.). The practice or technique of reworking the images or styles contained in earlier works of art, esp. (in later use) in order to provoke critical re-evaluation of well-known pieces by presenting them in new contexts, or to challenge notions of individual creativity or authenticity in art.

I have to be honest: I used to be a big fan of appropriation/pla(y)giarism, whatever. I generated at least two mss through appropriation, but my original sources were always acknowledged/given credit. I “provoke[d] critical re-evaluation of well-known pieces by presenting them in new contexts.”

The difference between appropriation and plagiarism is more than simple acknowledgement. Would it have made a dime of difference if the second had acknowledged the first? Doubtful. I’d still think he’s a hack. That’s about as generous as I can be. (AMENDMENT: I apologize for calling Stephen a hack. It was not personal, and I immediately regretted it. I even sent Stephen an apologizing email.)

Last year, I invited Josh Cohen to read at my school. (Yes, I’ve quoted him twice in one post.) During a public conversation about reading, writing, and publishing, we argued about appropriation. He said appropriation is lazy. I argued for its possibilities, its potentialities, it could be a way of “paying homage” while challenging the original, etc. Now, I agree with him.

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