On Plagiarism and Shame

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Kirby Ferguson would have you embrace the remix. Jonathan Lethem is similarly ecstatic about the gifts of our forebears. Of course, lifting polished stones to pave our own paths can pose some problems, which Ferguson and Lethem acknowledge. Ferguson says, “this idea that everything is a remix might sound like common sense until you’re the one getting remixed.” For many of us, it’s a lot easier to rob than get robbed. Lethem brings up “contamination anxiety” and it resonates with me. My first lesson in plagiarism was a lesson in shame.

I was 9 years old and beginning to think of myself as a poet. I wrote a poem that was a hodgepodge of Nelly Furtado lyrics, including the refrain “there’s a shadow in the sky, and it looks like rain.” I proudly showed it to my parents. My mother, who doesn’t know a Nelly from a Furtado beamed and praised my talents. My father, who gave me the album, shook his head and said, “this is plagiarism.” Even without the formal definition I knew it was a dirty word. Sadly, Dad done fucked up. He could have taught me the importance of attribution, but instead taught me to get better at hiding my tracks, like shit in a litterbox. Although cats don’t really have shame, which makes this a poor analogy. O to be a cat, blissfully unaware of plagiarism!

I remember another time in high school when our assignment was to write and deliver an informative speech. When one boy stood up and began to recite his speech, we could feel that something was off about it. The teacher cut him off. “What the hell are you doing? You just printed this off of Wikipedia. That’s disgusting. It’s unacceptable.” The teacher reamed him out in front of all of us for what felt like an eternity. I think in a way the kid was trying to be funny–he was using big words that he clearly didn’t know. But he was also probably insecure that he didn’t know that many words, and didn’t know how to write a speech, or give a speech, and anyway, nobody deserves to be made into nothing for 5 minutes. No one deserves to be pushed to the limit on how red your face can get, and how low your eyes can get cast.

Shame is why Muddy Waters can seamlessly name his influences but deny their influence. Shame is why Lethem’s old teacher insists that “serious writing is Timeless”–he is ashamed of pop culture bubblegum that works with shades of pink to obscure “the true human condition” or whatever. I’m working on shedding my shame. I’m working on giving more gifts. I’m reminded of this quote from Ira Glass that is tangentially related, about closing the gap between your taste and your abilities. One of the ways we’ll close the gap is by remixing, and remixing shamelessly.

One thought on “On Plagiarism and Shame

  1. you have a gift for language! the ira glass piece.. i wonder if what the tangential relation is, is the working via emulation, not shying away from making work like the works that you like?
    but i have a shudder around this being about good taste. just sayin’.

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