Thursday, September 29, 2011

Do not copy copia!


Speaking of copying and unoriginality, etc., this, from a recent piece in the TLS by Victoria Kahn called "Do Not Copy Copia." --

Classical rhetoric is no longer taught in grammar schools and the notion that copious argument can be "found" or generated from rhetorical exercises in variation or speeches pro and contra has mostly disappeared from composition textbooks.  To the extent that there is any formula for producing a student essay, it is the tired idea of the thesis statement, three paragraphs of argument, and a conclusion.  But where is one supposed to find a thesis?  School and university students are still to a large extent victims of the Romantic cult of genius, according to which ideas are supposed to spring full blown from their brains, like Athena from Jupiter's forehead.  This may be changing now.  We all have access to Wikipedia, the cyberspace version of the commonplace book; and it may be that the internet is fundamentally altering our ideas of copying and originality, by giving us easy access to a vast online world of arguments which we can borrow, imitate and recycle (not to mention plagiarize, which, as Renaissance writers recognized, is the insufficiently digested or transformed use of another's arguments).  But our composition textbooks have not caught up with our practice.  The insight that the very act of writing produces copia survives in books for adults on writer's block, where the reader is advised to leave perfectionism behind and simply "free write," just to get going.  But we do not help our students use other people's arguments to discover their own and imitate other people's eloquence to develop their own style of writing.
Picture: A photo legally deemed not to pass the threshold of originality.

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