Monday, November 17, 2014

"Originality is Impossible"

One of the most interesting professional tensions that I experience in my work as a coach is the resistance of anthropologists to my ideas about the writing process. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised to find myself in a disagreement with an anthropologist about the nature of authorship itself.

Susan Blum has provided a useful summary of her distinction between the "authentic self" and the "peformance self" in the American Anthropological Association's Anthropology News (March 2008). Two things stand out for me. First, she casts the "anthropological" notion of self as a foil for the traditional "academic" sense of self. That is, she suggests that there is a tension between what professional anthropologists know to be true about the self and what academics in general presume about it. Second, and more worryingly, she believes that students, unlike their university teachers, are in possession of this anthropological truth about themselves. That is, the students, qua "folk anthropologists", are right.

In defending the "academic", "authentic" self let me begin with what I think is a common misconception among patchwriters about originality. Here's one of Blum's subjects, i.e., a student she talked to during her fieldwork:

Ideas are gonna get recycled. There’s no way that a hundred kids in a class could write papers with all fresh ideas. That’d be a hell of a class if you could. In fact, I’d be willing to say that no one—not even one student—will come up with something that’s never been come up with before. And that’s not an indictment of them, it’s just these ideas are all over the place.

Now, academics know this as well as any student. When teachers ask students to submit "original" work, they are not asking them to "come up with something that’s never been come up with before", they are merely asking them to submit for evaluation their own ideas, i.e., ideas that, whether actually "original" or not (in the hyperbolic sense invoked by the student), are ones they actually "came up with". They will have arrived at these ideas on the basis of their reading, and it's therefore important for the student to properly reference the reading they have done, leading up to the part that they came up with themselves, so that the teacher can assess their abilities and give them a grade. Now, if they pass off some part of their reading as their own ideas they are plagiarizing, cheating. The are pretending they came up with something themselves that they just read in a book. But the fact that the teacher already knows what the student has "discovered" is not in and of itself a strike against the student. It's only a problem if the student hides the source.

Originality in the sense of something "new under the sun" is of course very rare. But it is possible to distinguish clearly between what you have learned from reading and what you have thought out yourself. This is very important in school, where almost all of what you learn is already known to others. But it remains important in a research career where "originality" in the strong sense of making that rare "novel" contribution, depends on knowing what is already known.


Jonathan said...

Yes, this is a very good post. That gap between originality 1 (your own ideas) and originality 2 (ideas nobody has ever had in the history of the universe) bears further analysis. It is quite easy to use your own ideas if you have no choice. Say you are given an exam and have to analyze "The Red Wheelbarrow," and have read no secondary sources at all. What comes out has to be your own, because you have no source to patchwrite from or otherwise cite. Now the interpretation is likely to be unoriginal in some sense, since it might echo ideas that do in fact, exist in the secondary literature. In fact, the professor herself has an idea about the poem, and will likely judge the student in relation to a certain "doxa" about the author--a set of conventionally held ideas that the student should have absorbed in the course thus far. A good student will use, perhaps, a poem analyzed in class like "In a Station of the Metro" and come up with a nice compare-and-contrast between two more or less "imagist" poems by American modernists.

Where we get into trouble is with students so far from expected norms of literacy that they have no conception of any writing about an academic topic that is not simply a recycling of information from elsewhere. It is interesting how this kind of student will echo the seemingly postmodern argument from the Anthropologist about the impossibility of "existential originality."

Most scholars might just reproduce the "doxa" of their fields. We've all reviewed articles in journals and said that it is a fine article, but just doesn't say anything we don't already know. This would be a fine student paper, in other words, but does not contribute to the field as an ongoing body of knowledge.

What is missing in the anthropologist's argument (sorry this comment is getting so long) is a notion of gradations of originality. Between originality 1 and originality 2 are some decimal points: 1.1., 1.2, etc...

Thomas said...

Gradations. That's the key. I think it was Ezra Pound who complained that we've lost a sense of gradations, a scale of values. And we see here how it happens. A concept like originality is first caricatured and then dismissed as a "impossible". Pound and Williams said something similar about "freedom": first it is equated with irresponsibility and then it is derided.