(Note: this blog post grew out of a lively conversation on the cpsc184 email discuss list. Credit goes to Jacob Albert for pointing to the original article on the German author and starting the discussion.)
A few days ago, the New York Times reported on young German novelist Helene Hegemann, 17, who had made it to the bestseller list despite criticism over plagiarism, including lifting an entire page from another work without citation. While instances of plagiarism are no means unique, what made this case interesting is that while Hegemann apologized for not citing her sources, she also explained that she was part of a younger generation that freely remixes culture and information. On the discuss list, Elizabeth asked about the ethical questions of not citing and helpfully pointed to a Harper’s article by Jonathan Lethem that situates the act of borrowing from other authors and artists in a long historical tradition, and Brendan suggested that perhaps contemporary remixes should be understood within this artistic tradition.
To respond to this last point, I think there’s an important difference between traditional remixes from the past (i.e. literature, art, and everything else Lethem discusses) and the remix culture on the internet. It’s true that remixing is centuries old and artistically valid, but in the article Hegemann argues that there’s something about this digital generation which is distinct. The relevant question then is to ask is what is different about new technology that changes cultural attitudes about remixes.
I would argue that it is the conception of authorship that has shifted, transformed by the cultural networks created by new technologies. In the recent pre-digital past, the standard was that some defined person or group created a work and was considered the author of the work. Even if an object was cobbled together from many different sources, there was always some identifiable creator recognized as source. For example, even though Shakespeare or Burroughs or the Dadaists borrowed from other work, we still identify them as the authors of the original piece which resulted, and we understand that it is their genius and creativity which made something new out of the old.
Contrast that situation with cultural attitudes about authorship surrounding digital memes. When someone decides to make another lolcat or other kind of meme the user often posts anonymously and there’s no obligation to cite the original source–indeed the original author is usually obscure, unknown (nobody knows who came up with “I can haz cheezburger“) and most importantly irrelevant. What matters is not the sense of individual authorship but rather the self-referentiality of the community as a whole. As Alex Leavitt makes clear in an article on digital memes that Elizabeth sent out, memes only make sense in terms of “subcultural networks,” and identifiable authorship is secondary. Hegemann’s assertion that, “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity” can only work in this digital context. In the pre-digital age, it would have been absurd to say that T.S. Elliott created nothing original because he took from other sources, and part the reason is that the concept of authorship was so enshrined.
We can use this distinction of conceptions of authorship to answer some of the ethical questions surrounding plagiarism. In the pre-digital age, it was more necessary to cite your sources, because those authors too were understood as being original and creative. Thus, not sourcing them was to appropriate their originality and therefore plagiarism. But in a digital memetic community, plagiarism doesn’t make any sense as a concept–if there is “no such thing as originality,” then there is no such thing as appropriation from others and further there is no assertion that the work is “your own.” In a memetic community, citation isn’t an ethical question because plagiarism cannot exist.
What is interesting with Hegemann’s situation, however, is that it actually doesn’t fall neatly into either one of these distinct conceptions of authorship–she borrows parts of both. On the one hand, the form she is using, the book, has a long tradition of valuing authorship. In our age, books are understood as the formal expression of a person or group of persons and it is hard to escape that (for example, even if you want to publish anonymously, you still usually would use a pen name). On the other hand, her conception of authorship has been influenced by digital communities (the internet, D.J.’s, Berlin youth culture, etc.) which do not necessarily value authorship and therefore do not place importance on citation. Thus, I’d argue that the reason that this example is so controversial is that it is a site where two conceptions of authorship are coming into direct conflict. Attribution is the locus of this conflict because it marks one’s allegiances–citing sources signals a traditional understanding of authorship, not citing signals a digitally influenced understanding of authorship.