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Old 09-28-2011, 04:08 PM   #1
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Uncreative Writing

This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks back, by the teacher of a very unusual writing course at UPenn, has sparked a fair amount of debate among college writing instructors, at least the ones I know.
For the past several years, I've taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania called "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.

...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.
Clearly, not everyone agrees. Recently, after I finished giving a lecture at an Ivy League university, an elderly, well-known poet, steeped in the modernist tradition, stood up in the back of the auditorium and, wagging his finger at me, accused me of nihilism and of robbing poetry of its joy. He upbraided me for knocking the foundation out from under the most hallowed of grounds, then tore into me with a line of questioning I've heard many times before: If everything can be transcribed and then presented as literature, then what makes one work better than another? If it's a matter of simply cutting and pasting the entire Internet into a Microsoft Word document, where does it end? Once we begin to accept all language as poetry by mere reframing, don't we risk throwing any semblance of judgment and quality out the window? What happens to notions of authorship? How are careers and canons established, and, subsequently, how are they to be evaluated?

...I agree that the moment we throw judgment and quality out the window, we're in trouble. Democracy is fine for YouTube, but it's generally a recipe for disaster when it comes to art. While all words may be created equal, the way in which they're assembled isn't; it's impossible to suspend judgment and folly to dismiss quality.
Nearly a century ago, the art world put to rest conventional notions of originality and replication with the gestures of Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, Francis Picabia's mechanical drawings, and Walter Benjamin's oft-quoted essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Since then, a parade of blue-chip artists from Andy Warhol to Matthew Barney have taken these ideas to new levels, resulting in terribly complex notions of identity, media, and culture. These, of course, have become part of mainstream art-world discourse, to the point where counterreactions based on sincerity and representation have emerged. Similarly, in music, sampling—entire tracks constructed from other tracks—has become commonplace. From Napster to gaming, from karaoke to torrent files, the culture appears to be embracing the digital and all the complexity it entails—with the exception of writing, which is still mostly wedded to promoting an authentic and stable identity at all costs.
While home computers have been around for about two decades, and people have been cutting and pasting all that time, it's the sheer penetration and saturation of broadband that makes the harvesting of masses of language easy and tempting. On a dial-up, although it was possible to copy and paste words, in the beginning texts were doled out one screen at a time. And even though it was text, the load time was still considerable. With broadband, the spigot runs 24/7. By comparison, there was nothing native to typewriting that encouraged the replication of texts. It was slow and laborious to do so. Later, after you had finished writing, you could make all the copies you wanted on a Xerox machine. As a result, there was a tremendous amount of 20th-century postwriting print-based detournement: William S. Burroughs's cutups and fold-ins and Bob Cobbing's distressed mimeographed poems are prominent examples. The previous forms of borrowing in literature, collage, and pastiche—taking a word from here, a sentence from there—were developed based on the amount of labor involved. Having to manually retype or hand-copy an entire book on a typewriter is one thing; cutting and pasting an entire book with three keystrokes—select all / copy / paste—is another.
In 2007 Jonathan Lethem published a pro-plagiarism, plagiarized essay in Harper's titled, "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism." It's a lengthy defense and history of how ideas in literature have been shared, riffed, culled, reused, recycled, swiped, stolen, quoted, lifted, duplicated, gifted, appropriated, mimicked, and pirated for as long as literature has existed. Lethem reminds us of how gift economies, open-source cultures, and public commons have been vital for the creation of new works, with themes from older works forming the basis for new ones. Echoing the cries of free-culture advocates such as Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow, he eloquently rails against copyright law as a threat to the lifeblood of creativity. From Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons to Muddy Waters's blues tunes, he showcases the rich fruits of shared culture. He even cites examples of what he had assumed were his own "original" thoughts, only later to realize—usually by Googling—that he had unconsciously absorbed someone else's ideas that he then claimed as his own.

It's a great essay. Too bad he didn't "write" it. The punchline? Nearly every word and idea was borrowed from somewhere else—either appropriated in its entirety or rewritten by Lethem. His essay is an example of "patchwriting," a way of weaving together various shards of other people's words into a tonally cohesive whole. It's a trick that students use all the time, rephrasing, say, a Wikipedia entry into their own words. And if they're caught, it's trouble: In academia, patchwriting is considered an offense equal to that of plagiarism. If Lethem had submitted this as a senior thesis or dissertation chapter, he'd be shown the door. Yet few would argue that he didn't construct a brilliant work of art—as well as writing a pointed essay—entirely in the words of others. It's the way in which he conceptualized and executed his writing machine—surgically choosing what to borrow, arranging those words in a skillful way—that wins us over. Lethem's piece is a self-reflexive, demonstrative work of unoriginal genius.

...Over the past five years, we have seen a retyping of Jack Kerouac's On the Road in its entirety, a page a day, every day, on a blog for a year...a poet who has parsed the text of an entire 19th-century book on grammar according to its own methods, even down to the book's index...a lawyer who re-presents the legal briefs of her day job as poetry in their entirety without changing a word...and an entire movement of writing, called Flarf, that is based on grabbing the worst of Google search results: the more offensive, the more ridiculous, the more outrageous, the better. These writers are language hoarders; their projects are epic, mirroring the gargantuan scale of textuality on the Internet.
It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing: With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours. The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term "unoriginal genius" to describe this tendency emerging in literature. 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.
When a writing prof I know first described this article to me, my initial reaction was "Meh...one poetry prof's eccentric pedagogical experiment--stimulating and fun for a certain type of writing/comp student no doubt, but really completely irrelevant to anything I do." But when I actually got around to reading the article (which, ironically, I found pretty poorly organized, so I rearranged it when excerpting--hey, he asked for it!), as a teacher, I found myself nodding vigorously in recognition several times at some of the identified dilemmas created for writing--any writing--by the '24-7 broadband spigot.' I've probably said this before, but I've never known a senior prof who didn't feel that the average incoming student's writing abilities have declined markedly over the decades s/he's been teaching. That perceived trend well predates the '24-7 broadband spigot,' and I think there are multiple reasons for it. Still, in my experience and that of many other college teachers I know, one big problem posed by having been weaned on '24-7 broadband' is that mediocre-to-average students--the same kind who 20 years ago were going "Just tell me how many pages, citations, and references I need, and if I do that I'll get a good grade right?"--they're having increasing difficulty reconciling the tension between the imperative to base their written work on existing texts (research) and the imperative to "do their own work," to offer something "original." When I was in college 20 years ago, almost all readily available resources were still on paper or perhaps microform, and hell even plagiarism would've taken a fair amount of effort; the whole process by its nature made you keenly aware that you were engaging in a carefully targeted process of extraction and distillation. Nowadays, by contrast, if for example I hear an interesting news piece about promoting female education in Cambodia and think, "Huh. Wonder what the history of that issue there is like?", well, I just keyword "women education Cambodia" and instantly, 47.7 million results practically throwing themselves at me, without me having to spend more than a second or two honing my concept of what exactly it is I'm wanting to explore. Many of my students today have next to no concept of research beyond this kind of thing, not because they're lazy but because they've grown up with a very different prevailing system of information access. Now for my better-prepared students, the ones who are lifelong readers and edited their high school newspaper and wrote a senior thesis and whatnot, for them it's not so much of a problem. But for the Just-show-me-how-high-I-need-to-jump crowd, yeah, it's a problem, and it's getting harder and harder to find ways to help them appreciate how the process of writing both refines and broadens their abilities to think, to analyze, to reflect and to share. So when I contemplate that dilemma, I can see how this teacher's unorthodox and counterintuitive methods might present one interesting way to force students to think about what they're really doing when "moving information" in ways they've previously taken for granted.

But obviously there are all kinds of directions one could go in with his ideas, since the Internet affects how nearly everyone thinks, reads, writes, works, socializes and creates, in all kinds of ways. I haven't personally put much thought into its implications for literary writing, which is clearly this author's primary interest. I kept thinking of the way blogs have evolved as I read his paeans to language hoarding and programmer analogies--so many blogs nowadays are as much about aggregating and networking as they are about 'what I did/thought today'--but then those aren't literary, nor aspiring to be. I understand and probably on some points agree with those whose reaction to him is that this is all so much Emperor's New Clothes gibberish, and there's perhaps a kind of unexamined entrepreneurial/consumerist slant to his vision of what creating should be that I'm not sure what to make of. But it's certainly...original and unique. Any thoughts?

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Old 09-28-2011, 06:44 PM   #2
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Patrick Hughes the artist - he does a pretty good line in taking other people's work and making it his own, with some of his 3D works... i quite like the spin he puts on it though...

interesting article... plagiarism is a massive problem in academia these days, even in high-level studies where you'd think students would know better... pretty shocking really... i guess everything is so instant and we have a wealth of information at our fingertips now... maybe it leaves very little room for original thought and formulation of our own ideas... when i was a student, we just had our books, the libraries, and microfiche... i remember researching my dissertation, having to plough across Paris to find material in various archives in different libraries, dusty old quiet places where you had to submit a special form to the clerk and it took ages to actually get your hands on the book you wanted and you couldn't take it out of the building - you had to take your notes there and then... it was so slow but it's a pace of thinking and study i loved and could keep up with lol... everything feels so rushed now lol!!

i do think any writer worth their salt still researches their work the "old" way. i.e. not relying heavily on the internet... my writer friends are like that anyway...

i do like the sound of that "reverse" approach in your quotes... quite a bit of fun to be had with it i reckon! even just as an exercise...

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Old 09-28-2011, 10:08 PM   #3
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I can think of no more urgent reason to write books today than out of an overwhelming sense of despair at the state of the world. It is also the most urgent reason to write book reviews. When I wrote my last review for this magazine, anthrax was traveling through the U.S. Postal Service and smart bombs were decimating Afghanistan; now we are waiting to find out if Pakistan and India are going to fight the first tactical nuclear war. Global warming, overpopulation, the worldwide AIDS epidemic, the ever-increasing distance between supposedly democratic governments and their electorates, the decimation of culture after culture by the relentless spread of the Disneyfied garbage of the American entertainment complex, and the incredibly sad, horrible, hopelessness-inducing fact that people still cannot say what they really mean to each other after seven or so millennia of human civilization: life really sucks right now. I am not claiming things are any worse than they have ever been, merely that there is genuine cause for sadness, and no writer strikes me as more despondent about the state of the world than Rick Moody.
Review-a-Day - The Black Veil by Rick Moody, reviewed by The New Republic Online - Powell's Books
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Old 09-29-2011, 11:58 AM   #4
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that actually sounds like a neat class. having to stand up and defend something you didn't write as if you actually did takes talent.
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