Monday, September 19, 2011

Unoriginal genius and the Sons of Ben: Another installment of... Make It New, Already!


Just the other day, Kenneth Goldsmith's article "It's Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It's 'Repurposing'" for the Chronicle of Higher Education got folks buzzing, even though it, well, repurposed things he's said before many times, e.g., in many dozens of Harriet posts - and the very term he deploys, "unoriginal genius," is taken straight from Marjorie Perloff's latest book of that title (see my blogpost about the book and related matters here); the article itself is the introduction to his new book, Uncreative Writing. A literary fun-house of mirrors, kinda! Anyway, the article begins:

In 1969 the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more." I've come to embrace Huebler's idea, though it might be retooled as: "The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more."
It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing: With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.

The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term "unoriginal genius" to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one's mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, "moving information," to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.
He adds:
Perloff's notion of unoriginal genius should not be seen merely as a theoretical conceit but rather as a realized writing practice, one that dates back to the early part of the 20th century, embodying an ethos in which the construction or conception of a text is as important as what the text says or does.
This gets, as perhaps it's designed to do, some folks in quite a huff, presumably because they work so hard to be "original." I don't feel very bothered by any of this, and it's perfectly provocative, questioning things in a spirit that should be acceptable to anybody who reads and writes poetry. But here's something that got left out, as far as I can tell. Goldsmith says:
Today technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing (there are, for instance, several Web-based versions of Raymond Queneau's 1961 laboriously hand-constructed Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few.
Well, though it's probably true that present-day technology has a role to play in the techniques being described, the thinking is quite - is it not? - traditional. Ben Jonson, for instance, our greatest poet of impersonation, would have found all this perfectly sensible and comprehensible, and rooted in the classics of antiquity. This is from an excellent forthcoming biography of the poet by Ian Donaldson:
Jonson's comedies often turn on some more or less mischievous act of impersonation, as one character fraudulently assumes the personality of another [e.g., Volpone, The Alchemist, The Devil is an Ass]... Yet as [the curiously hybrid nature of Jonson's Discoveries] testifies, there was another more sober and seemingly more legitimate form of impersonation in which Jonson was also deeply interested, associated with the practices of classical imitation: a process by which a modern writer might in some sense assume or appropriate the character of an admired writer from the past, feel at one with his thoughts and practices, speak (one might almost say) with his very voice. "The third requisite in our poet or maker," Jonson wrote... "is to be able to convert the substance or riches of another poet to his own use. To make choice of one excellent man above the rest, and so follow him till he grow very he, or so like him as the copy may be mistaken for the original." Though this passage is following familiar classical authority, it is disconcerting in a number of ways. The advice to follow another poet so closely that "the copy may be mistaken for the principal" may look (for a start) uncomfortably close to those of Jonson's own comic tricksters.
In the prologue to his biography, Donaldson examines a passage from the Discoveries that is "closely modelled, often phrase by phrase, on a passage from Seneca the elder's preface to his Controversiae" which needs to be read "almost with surgical care" to disentangle its borrowings, echoes, and feats of remembering; it's a work, in effect, of collective memory.

Jonson, of course, introduced the word "plagiarism" into English; it comes from, Donaldson reminds us, the Latin plagiarius: a kidnapper or body-snatcher. Jonson elsewhere expressed views against plagiarism, but, his biographer notes, the advice given in the passage quoted above gives rise to "a metaphysical puzzle." What happens, Donaldson asks, "when the aspiring poet fulfils the advice that is offered here, subduing entirely his own identity to that of the model he emulates...?"

Goldsmith highlights this very question. So, what I want to know is: are writers employing the techniques Goldsmith describes actually somehow... Sons of Ben?



1 comment:

Henry Gould said...

I haven't read the original Ben source, so I'm just speculating : but I would guess that this "3rd" mode of imitation (sheer mimicry) is just one of many techniques the aspiring poet is expected to master, in the school of imitation. Yet it's still just "school" - & I'd guess Ben expects people to graduate eventually from Ben school, & go on to write new original things, too... but I don't know. Edwin Honig was a Jonson expert as well as Pessoa specialist (another master of personae), and he was also obsessed with the problem of "being somebody" or "being nobody"... Nevertheless, he appears to have worked out a personal, original style in his own right... after a few decades.

Goldsmith starts out with this : "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more." I've come to embrace Huebler's idea, though it might be retooled as: "The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more."

From a psychological perspective, this seems telling. Here is someone obsessed with, or threatened by, the poetry which already exists. So he makes a decision : I am not going to write any new poetry : I'm not going to compete with that. But in order to compensate my loss, I'm going to instaurate an elaborate ideological construct involving the justification of borrowing and plagiarism as creative values in themselves, and I am going to push this agenda with all the energy I once hoped to put into making my own poems.

Well, good luck with that.