No one who has spent more than a few days reading this blog in its 3+ years can have missed the fact that I have beens strongly persuaded that the common notion of authorship – that true artists are solitary originating geniuses – is a myth. Kenneth Smith, in "It's Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It's 'Repurposing,'" adresses the same issues and covers much of the same ground, but he brings up a a few very interesting things that I had not previously encountered. The first is the prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff's "unoriginal genius" to describe the emerging tendency to consider you make your way through the contemporary flood of "information" – how you manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it-is what distinguishes your writing from mine: 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because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius-a romantic, isolated figure-is outdated.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. 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. (hyperlinks added) Even more interesting, however, is what Smith did. He's taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania he calls "Uncreative Writing." In it, students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive. Suddenly what they've surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness. We retype documents and transcribe audio clips. We make small changes to Wikipedia pages (changing an "a" to "an" or inserting an extra space between words). We hold classes in chat rooms, and entire semesters are spent exclusively in Second Life. Each semester, for their final paper, I have them purchase a term paper from an online paper mill and sign their name to it, surely the most forbidden action in all of academia. Students then must get up and present the paper to the class as if they wrote it themselves, defending it from attacks by the other students. What paper did they choose? Is it possible to defend something you didn't write? Something, perhaps, you don't agree with? Convince us. All this, of course, is technology-driven. When the students arrive in class, they are told that they must have their laptops open and connected. And so we have a glimpse into the future. And after seeing what the spectacular results of this are, how completely engaged and democratic the classroom is, I am more convinced that I can never go back to a traditional classroom pedagogy. I learn more from the students than they can ever learn from me. The role of the professor now is part party host, part traffic cop, full-time enabler. The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly "uncreative" as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother's cancer operation. It's just that we've never been taught to value such choices. After a semester of my forcibly suppressing a student's "creativity" by making her plagiarize and transcribe, she will tell me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being "creative," she had produced the most creative body of work in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity-the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer's training-she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing. Smith has thus provided another instance of what I already know in a different context – there are more and less original legal writers even though legal writing is one vast collaborative writing enterprise consisting primarily of texts cobbled together from pieces of other legal texts. Finally, Smith suggests that the insights he provides (which he would no more claim are original to him than I would claim them mine) have been largely resisted in one profoundly important world of writing: literature: I'm sensing that literature-infinite in its potential of ranges and expressions-is in a rut, tending to hit the same note again and again, confining itself to the narrowest of spectrums, resulting in a practice that has fallen out of step and is unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time. I find this to be a profoundly sad moment-and a great lost opportunity for literary creativity to revitalize itself in ways it hasn't imagined. Perhaps one reason writing is stuck might be the way creative writing is taught. In regard to the many sophisticated ideas concerning media, identity, and sampling developed over the past century, books about how to be a creative writer have relied on clichéd notions of what it means to be "creative." These books are peppered with advice like: "A creative writer is an explorer, a groundbreaker. Creative writing allows you to chart your own course and boldly go where no one has gone before." Or, ignoring giants like de Certeau, Cage, and Warhol, they suggest that "creative writing is liberation from the constraints of everyday life." As John Pareles wrote in "Plagiarism in Dylan, or a Cultural Collage?", Bob Dylan is another one of those giants leading the way: The absolutely original artist is an extremely rare and possibly imaginary creature, living in some isolated habitat where no previous works or traditions have left any impression. Like virtually every artist, Mr. Dylan carries on a continuing conversation with the past. He's reacting to all that culture and history offer, not pretending they don't exist. Admiration and iconoclasm, argument and extension, emulation and mockery – that's how individual artists and the arts themselves evolve. It's a process that is neatly summed up in Mr. Dylan's album title " 'Love and Theft,' " which itself is a quotation from a book on minstrelsy by Eric Lott. Of course, literature has not completely ignored these artistic trends. The group of authors comprising Oulipo were exemplars of what Smith might call "writers as programmers," and Donald Barthelme wrote: The principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the Twentieth Century. And, believe me: if you've never read Georges Perec or Barthelme, you've never read anything like what they've written. Or maybe you have.
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