Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Knowing ourselves as language designers: how plagiarism can be a good metaphor for shedding light on our everyday inauthenticity

Almost always when I think of something which for me is an "original thought" (a synthesis that I have not heard of being discussed as itself) and THEN I do a google search on it, I discover there are whole communities out there who have been discussing the subtleties of that idea for the last several years.

A discussion of plagiarism in today's New York Times (see related articles below) prompted me to reflect that there is a kind of intrinsic plagiarism to being a language user. To escape this more insidious type of plagiarism we must become a language designer. That is to say that if we are to be truly authentic, we must start to know ourselves as language designers, and not merely as language users.

The thing I remember being told about plagiarism when I was an undergraduate is that if you steal from ONE PERSON it is called plagiarism, but if you steal little bits of stuff from TWENTY PEOPLE and put them all together, that is called talent. So to an extent plagiarism seems to come down to the size of the pieces of text or ideas stolen.

But it also is a function of the uniqueness of a given phrase within the current discourse. For example Edward de Bono has somehow got his ownership of the phrase "Lateral thinking" fairly well established, even though I wonder if he was actually the first person to use the phrase. In any case if I started claiming that I made up that phrase, I would probably get myself in to some trouble. Certainly I did not make it up. The only way that it wouldn't get me in to trouble claiming that I made up "Lateral Thinking" would be the extent to which I simply get ignored. (Being ignored saves me from all kinds of trouble!)

It seems like a good idea to acknowledge our sources when we write or indeed speak. It may be helpful to people reading what we write. They might want to follow back upstream and trace the flow of those ideas down through the essays in which those ideas have been discussed. It is as though we are able to establish the authenticity of our work by acknowledging the extent of it's inauthenticity... the sources from whence our ideas came.

In my completely un-academic blogs and writings I tend to speak off the top of my head and I'm sure it all ought to be credited to someone else. People are of course always welcome to comment and claim or request citation or attribution!

Furthermore all of our sources always had their sources. The flow of ideas through our collective mind is more like an ecology of ideas than it is like the output of independently acting thinkers as we naively tend to treat it.

The idea of "dead metaphors"
becoming the foundation for the next layer of thinking, points us to the
realisation that for the most part the language we speak hardly ever belongs to us as individuals. Mostly we are at the very least using vocabulary that we did not have much to do with the structuring of. Incidentally, I was introduced to the "dead metaphor" metaphor, by Richard Rorty, although I am quite happy to accept that it wasn't a metaphor that he made up himself.

When we first start to grapple with designing language that is appropriate to a situation that has previously been intractable or obscure, (such as a "wicked problem") language is initially more like something we bathe in and splash around in, than it is something which we are able to design. However in the process of our splashing we may start to create a synthesis which is useful to someone else as well as to ourself.

So in the sense of our vocabulary if not also our phraseology, our authenticity is always constrained by the limits of our capacity to carve out our own meanings for words. Meanings which may heretofore have never existed. To make this task approachable, the place to start is by using commonly used meanings for words to take us at least as far as we can get to go with them.

However, at some point, if we are going to be authentic, we must start to restructure a unique set of connections and meanings which thereby can hold the content that we have previously been trying to fit within a "Terministic Screen" where in fact it could never really confortably belong and be itself. "Terministic Screen" is a phrase coined by Kenneth Burke to refer to vocabulary via which a given person or group or community accommodates itself to a given situation or attempts to deal with one.

It is for this reason (the absence of appropriate language with which to express my experience of being in the world), that I have tried over the years to write what for want of a better word I have called "poetry". For want of a better word because I have not as yet entirely managed to carve out a meaning for "poetry" which fits very well with the content of what I write. Although if you read my book "Ecstatic Union, Our own fantasy in preference to someone else's" you will see I have at least made some progress.

It is at this point, the point at which we start to be language designers, not merely language users, that we may truly and finally escape from plagiarism.

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