Monday, 25 May 2015

Writing to create confusion

I would like to know if there is a fundamental need for plagiarism in us, since the crime of misappropriation is so wide-spread that it appears to be much more than an epistemological shortcut.

When speaking of theory (in its original sense, I presume, which is that of looking at, of speculating), Baudrillard proposed something scandalous. Forget about reference, he says; forget about the need to cite a textual primordiality.

Source: EDL
Because it's false, he suggests, to think that theory (call philosophy, call it writing) reflects reality. It does not. It is not some original, presumably clear, unambiguous, precedent that I have to discover at the moment of theorising/writing. What I really have to find is the incontestable rupture generated within reality itself when I take up the task of philosophy or that of writing. Since both writing and philosophy are engaged in this game of signification (which, because it's a game, cannot be said to be stable), it makes sense to imagine that what really happens in both cases is a form of struggle: the effort to put the mysterious and forever-impenetrable Real into prefabricated moulds that are irrelevant to it.

Circling about to find mere nonsense

What we say about reality is not about reality. It is about us.
Writing is not the writing down of reality but the writing down of writing itself, through its essentially simple (and therefore repeatable) affordances.
It's in things that transcend writing (as well as in things that transcend theory) that the referent should be sought for, since it's there that we should be able to locate the Real itself. But such an enterprise would be ridiculous, because there would be no access granted to us in places where signification has no access. The same with philosophy: who can get where thought is incapable to penetrate?
What we are in search for at the moment of our attempted access is a referent impossible to locate.
Therefore we are doomed to go round and round, in repetitive circles, saying things again and again; plagiarising, to be more specific. We plagiarise our impotence and the impotence of those who tried before and reached the same verdict.

Sonja Hinrichsen, "Snow Circles." Source: Ufunk 
The certitude of this lack of reference forces us to look for meaning in what has already been said; because what has already been said has the advantage of having proven the existence of a (fabricated but apparently sufficient) reference.

Where there’s plagiarism there’s apparent certitude

Significance operates through tautology, because in order to signify one needs to establish a fundamental stability of the sign. One cannot speak of a valid sign unless one agrees that the given sign will have the same meaning when encountered again. This is where Michel Butor finds the resemblance between writing and nomadism: when a nomad finds a place with good water, he/she signposts it, leaves a mark on the ground, even if that sign is a mental calculation of coordinates. This signpost of the nomad is the mark on a page: a letter. This is why writing depends on a wandering hand, on a nomadic organ.
And so the origins of writing might be found at this curious moment when the nomad calculated his/her chances of finding good water based on the probability of coming this way again, in a foreseeable future.
Baidrillard, however, wants a system based on first encounters, when there were no certitudes, no signposts, no letters, no already-founds. And what’s more important, he doesn't want to go any further than this ontological search for the improbable referent. It's not the reference that needs to be sought after, but precisely this struggle to find it: the days and days of walking under a torrid sun, not knowing where the next source of fresh water may be. Not knowing if there is any water to be found in the foreseeable future. Not knowing if the nomad will live to reach it and to re-enact the pleasure of quenching their thirst.
This type of search, Baudrillard says, and rightfully so, is catastrophic to signification. It can only lead to nonsense, because it has originated from nonsense.
If we were to be honest about our significatory enterprises we would admit that there is, indeed, a permanent lack of reference at the bottom of everything. And because of this, every time we think we have acquired meaning, we discover that we have been taken by surprise. What we are surprised by is not our ability to make meaning but the fact that the world seems to fit into the categories we have created for it. But the world only seems to fit into those categories. It never does. It never did, it never will.

The only surplus that matters

When we signify, we appear to be taking something from the real and filter it through our well-crafted, seemingly efficient systems of signification. But that's not exactly what we are taking. If we started thinking along these lines, we would in fact develop the conviction that the world is indeed accessible, that it is preordained to fit into our categories; as if the categories existed before the world; as if we existed before existence.
If we do take something from the world, that can only be the confusion that the world itself yields to us. Confusion, i.e. lack of respect for categories. If we do think in these terms, then we should not be surprised to discover that our duty should be to preserve that confusion. To preserve it and, as Baudrillard suggests, to magnify it; to make the world even more impossible to penetrate.
"The absolute rule is to give back more than you were given. Never less, always more. The absolute rule of thought is to give back the world as it was given to us - unintelligible. And if possible, to render it a little more unintelligible."
Of course, Baudrillard circumvents here the crucial problem: the fact that this making-more-unintelligible can only be achieved by means of a certified system of intelligibility: language. That's why he doesn't want to desert philosophy. That's why I don't want to desert writing.

SourceL Choose Your Metaphor
But the major point to be brought to bear here is that we need to do things as if we were provoking these catastrophes of meaning. Since language cannot be avoided, we are doomed to get stuck in repetitions, in restatements of often identical traces. But turning against the outcomes of language (this syntax of representation that resides in words and sounds) makes room for the awareness of the real referent: the reality that exists beyond signs. This is a catastrophe in the midst of which repetition is itself a form of sabotage. Here, plagiarism is not a statement of weakness but one of strength. Here, repetition is a way of mocking the gullibility of the wrong belief that a sign can reach a state of self-satisfaction where it can be declared unique.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The felony of reading

To plagiarize, we are told, is to a commit a crime. It is, perhaps, to be some kind of Ted Bundy or the Unabomber, carefully planning a hit, ready to work out a life of fame at the expense of their unsuspecting victims.

Source: Condé Nast
Corry Doctorow has things to say about copyright and plagiarism from the point of view of someone who’s seen things made and done at the legislative level. And what he’s seen is, by all appearance, the criminalization of users (readers, watchers, listeners etc.) by the corporate universe.
“At root, DRM [Digital Rights Management] are technologies that treat the owner of a computer of other device as an attacker, someone against whom the system must be armored. Like the electrical meter on the side of your house, a DRM is a technology that you possess, but you are never supposed to be able to manipulate or modify.”
A lot can be said about the new forms of control put in place to supposedly protect us, the users, from being prosecuted. (Lucky us! To be so efficiently shielded against ourselves!) I don’t want to go into the details of how a DRM functions, how it purports to make bits of information uncopyable, how it acts as the antibody of a system that’s weak in the face of the scandalous multitude, us.
What I want to retain from the above is this: like in any criminal law, the purpose of copyright laws is to make the essential assumption that every user (every citizen) is a potential criminal. Like all laws, the laws of copyright run on suspicion. Yes, you need to be always on guard, always prepared to spot the intruder, always ready to cry: Catch the thief! Catch the thief!

Psychopathic executives, paranoid legislators

It is precisely this suspicion that the enforcers strive to quieten. It makes sense, doesn’t it, to board up the windows when you know that someone is coming for you. It makes sense to disrupt the crime that’s about to be committed. But we might have a problem with this takenforgrantedness. We might have a problem with it, because reacting against something that’s about to be committed means reacting against something that hasn’t been done: something that, in essence, doesn’t exist as such; a virtuality, a fiction.
In this, I see obvious signs of paranoia: the projection of a constant, largely imagined, fear, founded on an imagined threat, on the basis of a never-attainable solution.
In a radio program I was listening to the other day, the hosts were citing a fairly recent research project claiming that more and more individuals showing psychopathic traits are being welcomed as managers or CEOs of corporate structures. The conclusion was easy to imagine. Of course, they said, of course. What would you expect when the entire environment designed to uphold accomplishment is based on the easy principle of success without scruples?
The same goes, I think, with the paranoid mentality of legislators: since the only way to pass laws is by manufacturing the promise of success against virtual crimes, of course all we are going to end up with is an environment of suspicion. Everybody’s going to look over their shoulders: have I been trespassed against? Has my property been under threat?
Psychopathic executives, paranoid legislators: are we all well up in the attic? Can we function properly? Can we be said to embrace normality at all?
In this normality, the user is a villain. Yes, the user, who materializes the product’s function. The citizen, through whom the legal system is brought to light. It is the user that brings about the threat, the possibility of a crime to be committed.

Prosecute your readers!

To keep within my area of interest, I’d have to say that the reader of a book is, virtually and therefore undoubtedly, a likely criminal. Reading the work of another is, in essence, a form of home invasion. No matter how we twist the facts and force the meanings, the reader performs their actions without the author knowing who they are; without the author even knowing that they are defacing the text (mocking the original, bringing about a meaning possibly never intended). Since this is how things work, every author would be entitled to file a complaint against every single one of their readers for plagiarism and slander. For plagiarism because, at the end of the day, the reader is using precisely the words created by the writer, without changing a bit. For slander because the reader makes a false allegation against the writer: the allegation of incorrectness.
In theory, every writer should be entitled to call for prosecution. But then there’s this little reality of their complete dependence on the criminal. Because without the user, without the perpetrator, who would be there to acknowledge the work?

Source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
This paranoid return upon a threat that’s never fully materialized (no single prosecution will ever take away the suspicion) makes, therefore, sense only in the abstract. It is a speculation we’re talking about here: an apparatus of repression speculating in order to justify the presence of its laws. Write as you like, do as you please; at the end of the day you, the author, are the one losing: either at the hand of the reader (who will never be stopped from reading, i.e. trespassing), or at the hand of the legislator (who will take away your individuality to place it under an abstract complexity called copyright). It’s “the electric reader at the side of your house” that matters: a text that we own but cannot alter. Hence the important idea that even self-plagiarism is a crime.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Of plagiarism and commandments

Plagiarism is another way of dealing head-on with the surplus of the precedent and the problems caused by it. But plagiarism, the use of others’ words without acknowledgment, is truly nothing but a legal pronouncement. In essence, access to words is free of any injunction. It has always been free, ever since word combinations were made possible; ever since words became pronounceable, i.e. repeatable.

What has made the free use of words (and of texts in general) questionable is the law of copyright, a new-comer to the party of authorial accreditations.

Kidnapping texts

To put it simply, copyright is a prescription of property as well as one of propriety. It dictates the limits within which texts must be enjoyed and, at the same time, establishes the right avenues (the only acceptable ones) for the acquisition of enjoyment. What’s more, the phenomenon of misappropriation of texts has been endowed with an important affective charge, observable in its very etymology: the word plagiarism is derived from the Latin plagiarius, the meaning of which happens to be “one who kidnaps the child or slave of another.” With this reference to family, to the social structure closest to one’s being-in-society, enough provisions have been made to distinguish the act of plagiarism as a criminal act with intimate implications. Being plagiarized (finding one day that someone out there has copied your words, your ideas etc.) feels very personal precisely because of this; precisely because misappropriation is a crime against one’s family, against one’s home (insofar as one can be said to live within one’s own texts, within one’s language), against one’s blood and sweat.

Source: University of New Brunswick Libraries
While this emotional investment cannot be neglected, the commotion around the notion of plagiarism is equally due to the economic nature of the problem under scrutiny. The economy of ownership makes things interesting only insofar as they belong to someone who can be identified in a crowd. And so, the inviolability of ownership turns out to be based primarily on the recognition of a face, of an identity. No claim can be made for a case of plagiarism unless the face of the plaintiff is known, unless their name is pronounced in the public market. One will, therefore, have to think of ownership of texts in terms of hospitality – welcoming someone into one’s own text, inviting someone to be there and to behave as though the interior (the text) were their own.
This is what the logic of writing for a reader sounds like when put in the simplest of terms. But this is a flawed logic, because the welcoming implied by the host is not exactly attainable. Hospitality is in essence a form of hostility (Derrida). You don’t just give away your property to someone else; you don’t just let them use it as pleases their heart. Offering my house as a place to stay doesn’t automatically imply that the visitor can enjoy complete freedom in relation to it or in relation to me. On the contrary, if anything, they will be faced with the restrictions raised by my hospitality: don’t walk around naked, don’t spill coffee on the carpet, don’t watch tv unless you asked for permission, don’t use my toothbrush, don’t monopolize the toilet seat, don’t read my books unless invited to, don’t make free use of any texts. And I mean any!

Owning things

At close scrutiny, all of the above prove to be very weak statements. There is nothing inherent in any text that makes it subjectable to ownership.
Possession is the result of an economic exchange; or to put it otherwise, possession is the result of an arbitrary concord. There is a contractual basis (and bias) to all possessions, and one that creates an imbalance. The contract stipulates primacy of one individual user to the detriment of others. It establishes inaccessibility as the measure of all access. Only insofar as others are denied access to the text can the owner be said to enjoy his property in full. In other words, ownership over a text is not meant to singularize the user; rather, it is meant to transform the others (the outsiders) into transgressors.
Since on the other side of interdictions there are other, more subtle, interdictions, the right to be undisturbed in one’s enjoyment of property creates the desire for possession in all the contenders (i.e. in all of those who have been left out: the barbarians). And so, in fact, possession invites transgression, insofar as it establishes the grounds for the formation of desire.
The issue here is not the use, but the property. In principle, if something can be used by one individual it can be used by another individual in the same way. (What one man can do another man can do.) There are no biological or economic limits capable of altering one’s access to texts, to objects. Physically, objects are identically situated in relation to all who live and who experience them. I can see and touch a book or a table to the same extent that anybody else can see and touch them. I can take that book or that table and furnish my living room with them, and there is nothing to stop me from doing this; nothing, that is, but an abstract formulation, a statement made before me (chronologically as well as spatially), a law that precedes my coming into contact with the book or the table.

(c) Dave Coverly. Source: Penn State
Once ownership has been asserted, the object is thought of in terms of precedence. Whereas before it was a matter of horizontal distribution, in which equality of access was the mot-de-jour, now access to objects is arranged vertically. There’s the owner, who is regarded as originator, the ordering principle, the starting point of the very idea of distribution; and then there’s the subsequent user, who must have a different experience of the same object, one implying not the object’s qualities but the presence of the owner.
One should be able to see here already a general theory of writing and reading, in which reading can be said to be misappropriation of anything that preceded it: of any written utterance. Any reader could be prosecuted for plagiarism, since he/she makes use of texts produced by others.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Writing/stealing (as if the past didn't exist)

"There is only one thing which is generally safe from plagiarism – self-denial."
– G.K. Chesterton.

Source: Art News
“A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense. In this regard, few of us question the contemporary construction of copyright. It is taken as a law, both in the sense of a universally recognizable moral absolute, like the law against murder, and as naturally inherent in our world, like the law of gravity. In fact, it is neither. Rather, copyright is an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation.”
– Jonathan Lethem.

“Active reading is an impertinent raid on the literary preserve. Readers are like nomads, poaching their way across fields they do not own – artists are no more able to control the imaginations of their audiences than the culture industry is able to control second uses of its artifacts.”
– Jonathan Lethem, via Henry Jenkins, via Michel de Certeau.

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."
– T.S. Eliot.

"Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery – it's the sincerest form of learning."
– George Bernard Shaw.

Source: Tom Phillips
“Artists and their surrogates who fall into the trap of seeking recompense for every possible second use end up attacking their own best audience members for the crime of exalting and enshrining their work.”
– Jonathan Lethem.

“I have no copyright restrictions on my work—economically or legally—in perpetuity. I don’t believe that the result of my lifetime’s labor will have any economic ramifications, even long after my death.
I don’t doubt that it will have intellectual ramifications, though, but those consequences are entirely based on the work being made freely available for all. If I were to propose an economic model, the entire premise of my work would be undermined.”
– Kenneth Goldsmith.

“My book ‘Newspaper Blackout’ is a collection of poetry made by redacting newspaper articles with a permanent marker, leaving only a few words behind. (Imagine if the C.I.A. did haiku). Essentially, I destroy someone else’s intellectual property to create something new.”
– Austin Kleon.

"All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overhead. What else? Use of scissors renders the process explicit and subject to extension and variation. Clear classical prose can be composed entirely of rearranged cut-ups. Cutting and rearranging a page of written words introduces a new dimension into writing enabling the writer to turn images in cinematic variation."
– William S. Burroughs.

“Ours is an economy based on plentitude and abundance; the more copies of our work there are out there and the more readily available they are, the greater the impact our works will have. This is in contrast to economic forms based on scarcity: diamonds, paintings, fine watches.”
– Kenneth Goldsmith.

“Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and cross the middle. You have four sections: 1 2 3 4 . . . one two three four. Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page. Sometimes it says much the same thing. Sometimes something quite different—cutting up political speeches is an interesting exercise—in any case you will find that it says something and something quite definite. Take any poet or writer you fancy. Here, say, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like. As many Shakespeare Rimbaud poems as you like.”
– William S. Burroughs.

“Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.”
– Tristan Tzara.