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.