Saturday, 13 March 2010

There’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity

Think of almost any kind of cultural endeavor and then use the word “we” to describe its creation. The communal pronoun trips easily off the tongue when talking about the world of contemporary arts and entertainment, where things are often the product of teams, workshops, studios or institutions, where collaboration and idea-swapping are the norm. But now try applying it to creative writing, especially to fiction and poetry, and it can sound absurd: “We worked for years on the character development and the voice, and when we finally nailed the subtle epiphany, we cracked open a bottle of Champagne to celebrate.”

Maybe that’s one reason for the flurry of attention recently about a teenage German novelist, Helene Hegemann, whose book about Berlin’s club scene was named a finalist for a prestigious literary prize to be awarded next month in Leipzig. After a blogger and fellow novelist announced that Ms. Hegemann had blended sizeable chunks of his own writing into hers, Ms. Hegemann, instead of following the plagiarism-gotcha script of contrition and retraction so familiar in recent years, announced that appropriating the passages from that book and other sources was her plan all along.

A child of a media-saturated generation, Hegemann presents herself as a writer whose birthright is the remix, the use of anything at hand she feels suits her purposes, an idea of communal creativity that certainly wasn’t shared by those from whom she borrowed. In a line that might have been stolen from Sartre (it wasn’t) she added: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
Although associated with generally well-respected artists, Kathy Acker’s most recognized novels, Blood and Guts in High School, Great Expectations and Don Quixote receive mixed critical attention. Most critics acknowledge Acker’s skilled manipulation of plagiarized texts from writers as varied as Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Marquis de Sade. Acker's final novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, is a partial adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, with allusions to The Story of O and Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty.

Spam Lit (also known as Lit Spam and Literary Spam) is defined as snippets of nonsensical verse and prose embedded in spam e-mail messages. Some of the snippets are made up, others are passages from public domain works (such as Edgar Allan Poe and The Bible), and others are conglomerations of several creative public domain works, which are often be copied from the internet. Spam lit is included in spam emails selling or purporting to sell a products such as software, male enhancement pills, and computers.

Flarf poetry can be characterized as an avant garde poetry movement of the late 20th century and the early 21st century. Its first practitioners practiced an aesthetic dedicated to the exploration of “the inappropriate” in all of its guises. Their method was to mine the Internet  with odd search terms then distill the results into often hilarious and sometimes disturbing poems, plays, and other texts.

Originality is the last remaining waste product (muda) of creative practices and remains to be eliminated within aesthetic production and/or distribution systems.  Originality traditionally destabilises group functioning (e.g. the literary canon, the factory floor, a circle of close friends) and creates avant-garde (i.e. unsellable or unthinkable) works.

Notions of plagiarism and originality are rife in our culture at the moment, but attacks on plagiarism seem wrong-sided, warranted by the idea that originality is desirable and worth preserving when blending in and being like everything else is equally to be striven for.

Originality today has become the diminished function of lessening production costs ("content scraping") i.e. there is less and less incentive today to produce original works, especially in the arts, because everyone, particularly those outside the arts, are doing so.  And this creates a considerable incentive, especially among artists, to plagiarise works by others, works that already exist and were produced by those formerly considered to be non-artists.  Or to put it more simply, as the price of originality has gone way down (everyone an artist), the price of plagiarism has skyrocketed - even if, in the end, plagiarism has costs that are nominal, illusory, and often gratuitous when stacked against the no-less illusory concept of "originality".  What after all is the true economic "cost" of plagiarising clearly unoriginal work whose value is increased, not decreased by further (uncited) circulation patterns or by syndication across networks?