December 19, 2007

Plagiarisn't

One of the classes I took this semester was called 'Teaching Freshman Writing': a course about the various pedagogies of college composition, and a prerequisite for applying for a teaching job next year (which I plan to do). It was a fun class, and the readings we had to do for it were generally interesting and thoughtful.

However, the article we had to read in the last week — "Sexuality, Textuality: The Cultural Work of Plagiarism", by Rebecca Moore Howard — was an infuriating piece of cultural studies pseudo-argument, and I can't hold off tearing into it any longer.

Its main point is actually a good one, and made convincingly right there on the first page: a survey of college English teachers all over the United States was unable to provide any meaningful consensus as to the definition of plagiarism, and if we can't define plagiarism how can we reasonably continue to punish students for doing it? From there, though, the article descends into a sticky morass of bizarre feminist rhetoric based on questionable evidence and logical fallacy.

Item: Moore points out that cultural studies scholars have long acknowledged that there's no such thing as originality, and it would be impossible for anyone, anywhere, to ever cite "all" their sources. (Such an undertaking, it is alleged, would require a full "history of the writer's subjectivity," whatever that means.) Moore also points out that plagiarism policies imply that all student work must be original and/or fully cited, which, clearly, is impossible if you maintain that the preceding point is true. Except that really what she's doing is taking concepts from two completely separate arenas (literary theory and university bureaucracy) and conflating them; "originality" in the literary theory sense is not the same as "originality" (read: "not plagiarised") in the university bureaucracy sense, and so there's really no reason why a piece of work can't be "not original" and "original" at the same time.

I could make all sorts of stupid arguments if all I had to do was compare different definitions of the same word. Like, a tiger is an animal, but some people also speak of Asian Tigers, which are rapidly growing economies in southeast Asia. But how can something be an animal and a rapidly growing economy at the same time?!! That's ABSURD! Therefore, there is no such thing as southeast Asian economic growth (or there's no such thing as tigers; take your pick).

Item: Moore begins her argument by using cultural imagery that "shows" how authorship is denied to women. For instance, a common metaphor for creative writing is the author being inspired by a muse. Because muses are beautiful females, and because "being inspired" is synonymous with boinking (Moore says; it's news to me), and because our culture requires compulsory heterosexuality, women can't have sex with muses and therefore can't be authors. I mean, never mind that these are vague cultural notions that have no basis in any kind of empirical reality and are deployed only in a tiny smattering of the situations in which authorship is discussed — apparently when Margaret Atwood turned up at the publisher's office with The Blind Assassin there was a hot lesbian sex scene before any contracts were signed.

If you think that's a tenuous argument, your head may well explode at the next one. Not only are women never authors, but, in fact, they are always plagiarists. I have to cite Moore's own words on this one, so you can appreciate their breathtaking ridiculousness:
Plagiarism is a disease; disease is of the body…; and the body, Aristotle and his successors have convinced us, is the feminine… Hence plagiarism, through its association with the female author who is mad, is a female madness. (p481)
Did you catch that? Plagiarism = disease, disease = body, body = feminine; so plagiarism = feminine.

But why stop there? I propose the following: plagiarism = disease, disease = body, body = feminine, feminine = maternal, maternal = reproduction, reproduction = creation of something new. Ipso facto, plagiarism = creation of something new, ergo thus QED. Did I just blow your mind, or what?

Item: This is actually a continuation of the last point, but is easily the pinnacle of the article's fatuity — so I thought it deserved its own subheading. After having established that authors "must" be male, Moore tells us that plagiarism is analogous with sexual transgression, and because there is only one sex act that is exclusively performed by men upon women, "plagiarism is a form of rape" (p482); "plagiarism amounts to one man's raping another man's female property" (p483). Never mind the obnoxiously sexist suggestion that men can't be raped — I wonder how Moore can reconcile the assertion that "plagiarism is feminine" with the idea "plagiarism is male sexual violence".

Actually, it's not really fair to call Moore obnoxious for saying that men can't be raped, because a mere two pages later she corrects (read: contradicts) herself: "the victim of plagiarism is the victim of homosexual rape. The male author has been raped by the male plagiarist" (p484). I don't really understand how this fits into the tangled web of syllogistic gender nonsense that Moore has spun (men are authors and plagiarists and rapists and victims; women are not authors, but they are plagiarists, but they're not rapists, but they are muses), but I think we can safely say that what Moore is really trying to do here is make a sort of metaphorical argument about how the practise of writing is maybe more complex that we might have thought.

Oh, no, wait, my bad:

Item: This is my favourite, actually:
Are sexual preference and plagiarism simply incidental associations, or are hierarchical gender and sexuality integral to our fundamental concept of plagiarism — integral to the cultural work accomplished by that concept?

My answer to this last question is "yes".
Well, it doesn't take a raped muse to tell you that Ms Moore just answered "yes" to a question that is manifestly not a yes/no question, but thankfully she goes on to elaborate that, in fact, these are not merely incidental associations: the fundamental meaning of plagiarism really is rape.

I guess my biggest problem with the whole article is that, no matter how pithily I debunk it here, Moore (or any other cultural studies wonk) can just turn around and say that of course I'm not convinced, because these cultural assumptions are so deeply ingrained that I don't even realise it — and all I'm doing by badmouthing Moore is perpetuating the very structure of gendered oppression that she is trying to destroy.

But is that really a fair argument, or is the purpose of cultural studies essays like this more accurately to demonstrate to other cultural studies scholars what a swell intellectual the author is through his or her ability to employ the abstruse language of the academy?

My answer to this last question is: (c).

2 comments:

papa' said...

Funny coincidence that you should write about this now - I have just spent the past day and a half dealing with a flagrant instance of plagiarism that came to light by chance a year and half after the fact. I had other things to do, but my planned schedule (including buying your Christmas present) was derailed by the need to uphold masculist cultural values. (The plagiarist is male; oddly, most of the work he copied is by women). The whole thing doesn't feel so much like rape as just old-fashioned breach of trust. But as you say, I'm just betraying how deeply ingrained these cultural assumptions are.

With any luck I'll get to buy your present tomorrow.

Claire said...

I was personally most annoyed to discover that, as a woman, not only can I not be an author, but I am in fact the single greatest threat to the very institution of authorship.

Congratulations Ms. Howard, you discovered that, for a long long time, all kinds of negative things were associated with femininity. I am in awe of your meaningful scholarship.

But why buy the cow when you can get the bull-shit for free, amirite?

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