“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” –Ecclesiastes 1:9
Mockingbird’s ars poetica is really saying nothing new, but saying the same old thing over and over and over again, and seeing it pop up and sing in the strangest of places. Apparently we’re setting (well, following) trends because, according to The Chronicle Review, this seems to be happening in the creative writing world. It’s called the writing practice of “unoriginal genius” and its modus operandi is eerily familiar. In a time where good writing is emulsifying every morning like the pores of your shower loofah, the old notions of “the genius” as a privatized and transcendental thinker are no longer functional. Instead, today’s genius is he or she who has an incredibly apt filter, who can needle through vast and various fields of literature and spin a narrative with what’s before them.
It’s a writing practice that is undeniably pro-plagiarism, and it’s complicating the institutional understandings of creative thought. What is creativity, after all? How much actually comes from you, the creative individual, and how much is a re-re-re-rendition of something someone said sometime, that completely touched you, so you repeated it? The article seems to be saying that we are less composed of authenticity than we like to believe, but that that’s not something to get down about. It kind of means you’re less alone.
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.
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. Think, for example, of the collated, note-taking practice of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project or the mathematically driven constraint-based works by Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians.
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.
In 2007 Jonathan Lethem published a pro-plagiarism, plagiarized essay in Harper’s titled, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.” It’s a lengthy defense and history of how ideas in literature have been shared, riffed, culled, reused, recycled, swiped, stolen, quoted, lifted, duplicated, gifted, appropriated, mimicked, and pirated for as long as literature has existed. Lethem reminds us of how gift economies, open-source cultures, and public commons have been vital for the creation of new works, with themes from older works forming the basis for new ones. Echoing the cries of free-culture advocates such as Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow, he eloquently rails against copyright law as a threat to the lifeblood of creativity. From Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons to Muddy Waters’s blues tunes, he showcases the rich fruits of shared culture. He even cites examples of what he had assumed were his own “original” thoughts, only later to realize—usually by Googling—that he had unconsciously absorbed someone else’s ideas that he then claimed as his own.
It’s a great essay. Too bad he didn’t “write” it. The punchline? Nearly every word and idea was borrowed from somewhere else—either appropriated in its entirety or rewritten by Lethem. His essay is an example of “patchwriting,” a way of weaving together various shards of other people’s words into a tonally cohesive whole. It’s a trick that students use all the time, rephrasing, say, a Wikipedia entry into their own words. And if they’re caught, it’s trouble: In academia, patchwriting is considered an offense equal to that of plagiarism. If Lethem had submitted this as a senior thesis or dissertation chapter, he’d be shown the door. Yet few would argue that he didn’t construct a brilliant work of art—as well as writing a pointed essay—entirely in the words of others. It’s the way in which he conceptualized and executed his writing machine—surgically choosing what to borrow, arranging those words in a skillful way—that wins us over. Lethem’s piece is a self-reflexive, demonstrative work of unoriginal genius.
…Far from this “uncreative” literature being a nihilistic, begrudging acceptance—or even an outright rejection—of a presumed “technological enslavement,” it is a writing imbued with celebration, ablaze with enthusiasm for the future, embracing this moment as one pregnant with possibility. This joy is evident in the writing itself, in which there are moments of unanticipated beauty—some grammatical, others structural, many philosophical: the wonderful rhythms of repetition, the spectacle of the mundane reframed as literature, a reorientation to the poetics of time, and fresh perspectives on readerliness, to name just a few. And then there’s emotion: yes, emotion. But far from being coercive or persuasive, this writing delivers emotion obliquely and unpredictably, with sentiments expressed as a result of the writing process rather than by authorial intention.
These writers function more like programmers than traditional writers, taking Sol Lewitt’s dictum to heart: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” and raising new possibilities of what writing can be. The poet Craig Dworkin posits:
“What would a nonexpressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with “spontaneous overflow” supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.”