Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Plagiarism and Utopia

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it. - Marx

The papers and the internet are buzzing with moral outrage. The ideologues of the present age seem to be encouraging a witch hunt against poets who plagiarise.

Now I would be a conspiracy theorist, if I was to put this witch hunt down to the recent change to a reactionary government. I will note that our current junta sees research as something to be mocked, and that the initial article was printed in that mouthpiece of the reactionaries, The Australian (note that on principle I will not link to this article, you can find it if you want.) I would be happy to put his down to coincidence. I would be equally happy to say, as have many over weight, alcoholic, cynical, television detectives have said, I do not believe in coincidence. I would venture to guess that the artless reactionaries will be happy to use these incidents to justify a cut in funding.

I, for one, will not join this conga line of moral condemnation of the so-called plagiarists. I do want to think about the chummy, vanilla custard culture that the present hierarchy of arts bureaucrats has created. Most importantly I wish to offer some simple (possibly simple-minded) solutions.

I find it surprising that -- if these plagiarisms are so egregious and so corrosive of the public good -- the errors were not noted earlier. Why for example did it take almost three years to notice the errors in the poem that won the Rosemary Dobson Prize in 2010? Why was this found out from a self titled poetry sleuth and not from someone within the prize giving community?

As I am not in this inner clique of the cool kids who make these decisions and award these prizes, I can not comment on their thinking. I am, however, able to make some comments, based on the actions they have taken, and the artifacts of their thoughts.

It seems to me, from my outsider point of view, that the main attribute for a prize winning poem is that the poem sounds like something the judges have heard before, something that has that pleasant overcoat of familiarity. Noting, as Jane Caro did (in noting a twitter post), that there were more ex-students from Riverview in the Abbott cabinet than women, we can also note that the bulk of poetry prize winners come from a similarly small (dare we say privileged) pool. Not only in numbers of actual poets but more importantly the winners are drawn from a similar pool, and are unified thematically and stylistically.

In my utopia, which would be happy and have many good laws, and which we will call Tomton, poetry and art would have a different position that they do in our society. Living in smaller, more sustainable cities and towns, hearing poetry, seeing art would be as easy as floating down to the local centre on a post-coital Sunday morning to get the newspapers, coffees, and cheese danish. For art would be all around. Music would be floating from the open windows of the many well maintained and charming communes. Artists would have decorated the walls, even the streets. No more would our eyes and minds be assaulted by crass advertising for things we have no need nor use for. Children would run and play and we would see and hear their unselfconscious, spontaneous art (the best art of all.) An orchestra would play in the local square, the concert would be never ending as musicians would come and go as they pleased. Poets would be declaiming their work, standing on tables in the cantten, while dancers flowed around the amused diners. A line of excited poets, bongo players, and dancers would snake out the door. All eager to speak, to play, to dance. All eager to contribute, all shouting for joy at this democracy of art. All encouraged.

Sadly all we have is capitalism. And with this way of life we gain competition, and hierarchy, and a constant chasing after.

But in the short term, some suggestions.

Maybe we can have an occasional Jubilee Year. Prizes and competitions would not be allowed to have any entrants from those that work or teach at university. One year moratorium on entries from those who have a degree in a creative writing. Maybe we can do this once every five or seven years, or the various prizes can take turns in seeking entries from outside the university axis.

With the continual “jobbing” of culture, from so-called plagiarists to cynical provocateurs, maybe the contests would do just as well to pick a random poem from out of the proverbial hat. The role of the judge could be no more than one of narrowing down the list of entires from the original (here I am making up numbers) 500 to a more manageable 50, and then rewarding one at random. Software can be quickly hacked up that would generate the appropriate random numbers, so there would be no need to even narrow down the entries.

The picking out of poems at random will ensure that there are no hurt feelings. New poets would not be discouraged, and so would not drop away.

On a more practical note I simply point the reader to any number of plagiarism detection applications. Like the bogus speed cameras that work to limit speeding, even a public announcement that such software may be used will go a long way to limiting such errors.

While on the subject of software I would promote the idea of free software. Anyone can use any poem and a poet even rewrite the original, but they would then have to print the original work alongside the new work. This would of course obviate the need for poetry sleuths and plagiarism detectors and would have the added benefit of introducing the audience to more poetry.

Getting back to Tomton, we should have poets on every street corner not only reading their works, but engaging a interested audience. An audience that is hungry for culture and art.

You may have noticed that I always used the word error to describe the plagiarisms. As plagiarism is not a crime, and is even a more or less modern idea, I wanted to use a word that did not have any moral overtones. Error seemed best to me, in that the poets erred in not noting the original lines and images. If the poet was to read his or her poems to an audience and that audience was able to speak with the poet in an honest, open, and back and forth way would this have happened?

A great deal of this scandal seems bound up in issues of IP. After a decade in the IT industry I never want to hear another word about intellectual property my life!

My beef is not with the individual poet, but rather with the poetry superstructure we have built. If we can change the way we reward poetry we can go a long way to seeing that these sorts of issues never arise again.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Nothing is True

So as one who has spent his entire career on the fringes of the poetry world, I am more than a bit amused at the recent plagiarism scandal in the poetry world. In the same way that opposition to the ETS is actually a symptom of a deep seated fear of change and of science so too is this plagiarism scandal the symptom of a much deeper problem. There are others words that we dare not say as well, words such as incompetence and monotony, and the most dread of all words ownership.

I look back at some of the events in my life and I have to laugh. Many years ago while living in Brisbane and working in some soul destroying proletarian sort of job an academic knocked back my submission to an anthology of poetry telling me that I did not speak the language of the working people. Too stunned to reply I could only laugh. Later I entered the Vogel Award, not that I am a novelist of any sort, but I wanted to see if I could write a full length novel. I have no bitter feelings for having lost for my book was not very good. But the point I want to highlight is that this was the same year that the award was won by the execrable The Hand That Signed the Paper. A remarkably nasty little book that went on to win the Miles Franklin award! As a side note a previous winning novel Jack Rivers and Me was not written by the claimed author.

So here we can see a pattern of foolishness.

But enough of my nonsense and moving right along. It was with great amusement when I jumped onto the computer and saw a series of posts and comments about the most recent scandal in the poetry scene. Every single post attacked the individual involved. Some saying that the poet refused to travel the searing road to find his own voice, others, like protesters in front of Scott Morrison's office chanted shame, shame!

Now it is not my intention to defend the poet, Andrew Slattery, as I do not know him from a bar of soap. But rather I wish to find any deep seated failures that allow this to happen. For like anything else in our world, the poem is not a thing, but rather a relationship between people.

So besides the terrible word plagiarism, the first word we must bring up in relation to this “scandal” is incompetent. First I have to note that it has been almost three years since he won the Rosemary Dobson Prize. Three years and nobody from the judging committee noticed! Even more shocking to me is this sentence from the SMH article that leaves me shaking my head. An entire poem was lifted from the philosopher Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Have none of the judges ever read Beyond Good & Evil? Surely one of the most unique voices in Western philosophy and the doyens of literature in Australia did not notice. This is surely a level of incompetence that makes the sins of the poet pale into insignificance.

In my travels as a poet I have at times had a foolish or unreasoning fondness of the idea of the gloss. Submitting my poems to various journals and what-not, I was informed (again by an academic) that to use a gloss was an example of pretentiousness and that modern poetry could not be pretentious. I retorted that if pretense is from the word to play, who if not a poet could be pretentious. So the gloss is no good, in-text citations are clunky and disturb the flow. Foot notes seem better, but to my mind the best thing to do would be to mention in a bit of a proem that this is a cento with lines from XYZ poets. But would the poem then pass the muster of the academy? I think not, I am happy to be shown wrong. All of this lifts the cover on the sleeping lump that is poetry in Australia. That it is too closely bound with academics, and we can note that academic is close to the word anemic. For that is what passes for poetry in Australia today, a bloodless, lifeless regurgitation of the known.

The third and final point I wish to make concerns the idea of intellectual property. Did the Homeridae even care about intellectual property? For is not the literal definition of rhapsode a stitcher of words? This was noted by Pindar
In the same way as the Homeridae,
Singers of stitched words...

Did Shakespeare feel he was plagiarising when he used, for example, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe as the basis for Romeo and Juliet? Did the medieval balladeers feel they were plagiarists when they recycled lines and tunes? And what of the works of Eliot or Joyce, to name just two?

Or to quote Pound with usura
seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines
no picture is made to endure nor to live with
but it is made to sell and sell quickly.

Plagiarism as a crime (or sin if you prefer) rises with Capitalism, for the ancients had no problems with the idea of recycling and reusing works. In our bourgeois world (and I would invite my readers (however few they may be) to join me in recreating bourgeois as a word that expresses contempt) where the individual is risen above all, and the very idea of the co-operative spirit is brought into doubt what are the pressures on the author? It seems to me that copyright and intellectual property, while sounding helpful and fine in theory are used by big conglomerates to control thought, and art in our society. One only has to look at the shameful acts of the Disney corporation in ripping off fairy tales and then claiming ownership of the idea of, for example, Snow White. Or the equally shameful and bogus claims of Men at Work and the Kookaburra Song. So keen where they to defend their rights that tehy did not even know, until an unfortunate episode of Spicks and Specs. Examples of publishing companies abusing copyright can be extended seemingly endlessly.

So here we have it, my thoughts on this topic. The words that can not be spoken are, incompetence -- the incompetence of judges. Monotony, the stranglehold of writing held by academics who seek only to reinforce their own position. And of course the vile words of ownership, which seeks to make money at the expense of art.

Could this all have been avoided? Yes, the author could have noted the use of other writings, but would it have won? With the storm spreading across facebook, I doubt it, for too many seem to place an individual originality above the work of art. But from my point of view, this whole imbroglio was worthwhile as it allowed me to do some research into the ancient idea of the cento. Was the poem good, were the ideas good, did you enjoy and learn something? So we must finish with a half-forgotten quote from Ezra Pound, “it is a poor critic who talks of the artist and not the work of art.” For now we know more about Andrew Slattery and very little about the actual poem written.

painting from

Friday, September 13, 2013

Suicide and Revolutionary Action

If the wealth of society declines the worker suffers most of all, and for the following reason: although the working class cannot gain so much as can the class of property owners in a prosperous state of society, no one suffers so cruelly from its decline as the working class.

Let us now take a society in which wealth is increasing. This condition is the only one favourable to the worker. Here competition between the capitalists sets in. The demand for workers exceeds their supply. But:

In the first place, the raising of wages gives rise to overwork among the workers. The more they wish to earn, the more must they sacrifice their time and carry out slave-labour, completely losing all their freedom, in the service of greed. Thereby they shorten their lives. This shortening of their life-span is a favourable circumstance for the working class as a whole, for as a result of it an ever-fresh supply of labour becomes necessary. This class has always to sacrifice a part of itself in order not to be wholly destroyed. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 - Marx

I suppose I should start at the beginning and say a few words about myself, and how it was I came to write this thing. Then I will lay out some of my thoughts in a breathless run-on sentence sort of way. After a bit of this nonsense, I will, knowing that the point of philosophy is to change rather than interpret the world, attempt to offer a few utopian suggestions. So let us, as they say, crack on with the confusion.

One Sunday Father's Day morning I fired up my browser and looked at various news articles to find out if we had gone to war while I slept. Pleased as I was that here was no new war, I continued scanning the news and read this Fathers Day article in the SMH.

Being at least passing familiar with Churchill's black dog, I felt it to be my civic duty to add my two bobs worth to the table. Even if this petty amount will not allow me to buy a nice dinner, or even a bottle of wine, my small donation does at least allow me to partake of the conversation. As much as anyone else; more than some, but less than others, I feel I have the life experience to talk about this subject. Not as a professional, nor as one trained in these things, solely as one who has lived a life and met many people, and as one who has suffered with depression.

In The Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens offers, what seems to me, to be an appropriate quote for this discussion. In seasons of pestilence, some of us will have a secret attraction to the disease--a terrible passing inclination to die of it. So too with depression. It is becoming a bit of a fashionable ailment to have these days.

So fashionable indeed that every other football player and retired Liberal Party hack brags of their fight with depression. So fashionable that there is talk of a cultural epidemic of suicide, while simultaneously there is much soft and muddle-headed talk about the main group killing themselves. That is the group of working-age men.

But what does this mean, who are these working-age men? There is a hint perhaps when Brendan Cowell says "It wasn't until I escaped it (it being his boyhood home of Cronulla) that I went whoa, hang on, that's not normal." This raises a question as to what is normal, a question far too vast to be answered in this article. More importantly it forces us to face the question as to who is killing themselves. Maybe it means that working class men kill themselves at a higher rate than others.

In the Telegraph newspaper, discussing a match between the Sharks & the Roosters, we get this "you’ve got a working-class team against the golden boys from the Eastern Suburbs.”

So if we find the Telegraph describing an area as working class, knowing how fearful the press is about even acknowledging the class nature of society, I think that one should take notice. So let us take this as a basis. Brendan Cowell mentions that he knows at least ten suicides of friends from his days in the Shire. He then states then when he escaped he realised that this rate of self murder was too high, it was not normal.

I too came from working class neighbourhood and I too can point to a similar number of suicides, and attempted suicides among my friends and friends of friends. Sadly my career has not been a success, so I have never escaped my working class heritage, so I may often a different viewpoint.

Now I do not want to be seen as criticising Mr Cowell, as I do not know him, but I am sure that his heart is in the right place, I am sure that his actions are situated in an environment of great affection and love, and an equally great loss of sorrow for his departed friends. And for the sake of this essay I am happy to agree with him that too many people are dying. This is more an attempt to view the situation through the prism of class consciousness.

Rather than mentioning smoking pot as being a contributing factor let us look deeper. This is not to say that drug and alcohol dependency has no part to play in suicidal ideation. But from where does this mass addiction arise? Knowing how aggressively the enemies of the working people promote a drug and drinking culture among working people, one can rightly ask how great a role do cynical business people play, how much do multi-millionaire beer barons, rewarded as they are with knighthoods and other awards, generate this epidemic, this culture of self harm? This is not to say that they have produced this crisis, but one again may rightly ask if they are doing much of anything to help stem the tide of young male self harm. For the commodification of alcohol, and therefore alcoholism must surely play a profound role in the deeper, structural causes of suicide among working age, working class men.

Watching on DVD the charming, bittersweet Woodley series with my children, this sad, lonely, dejected character seemed to be a symbol for my thoughts. For the hero was lost after his marriage had broken down. Forced into poverty, our hero was then compelled to take a menial, soul destroying job. Dressed in a humiliating costume, he had no choice but to travel the streets of the city, handing out leaflets. Alone and isolated, having lost control over his own life, he was abused and ignored by the passing crowd. In the end it all became too much and he stood on the bridge looking at the reflections of the busy city on the inviting surface of the Yarra River. Contemplating ending his life. For the sake of the series he, at the last moment, remembered the love of his child and backed away from the abyss. As reality differs greatly from fiction would he not, in real life, have jumped? If he did not jump, would his life not become a endless drudgery, devoid of hope, and the chance of long term happiness?

Many studies into workplace stress point to a simple fact, that it is not working hard that causes stress, it is not even overwork that causes stress, rather it is the loss of control that causes stress. It is pretty much true that the lives of working people are identified by having no control. We are told to be at a certain place at a certain time, we are not allowed to eat, or even to piss or shit unless the clock allows it. Our lives are controlled by other people, and there is constant uncertainty due to failures to meet arbitrary KPIs. Even worse poor decisions by management will result in large numbers of workers in an enterprise being let go in an attempt to solve a problem that they have not created.

In a world were to be poor is the unpardonable sin, were visions of wealth and power are pushed into our faces at every turn, in a world were all that matters is money, in a world based on exploitation, in a world where the short term profits matter more than the training and extending of the workers, one has to ask, not why do so many kill themselves, but rather why do more people not kill themselves.

For the ones that fall by the wayside, for the young men who buy into the false ideology of the strong man, for the ones who live dreams of football heroics and nothing more, egged on by zealous, vicariously living parents and equally zealous, heedless of the future coaches; life becomes a bleak world with no future and no hope, life becomes little more than a five day grind dulled only by mindless entertainment, and a weekend of binge drinking. Equally for the soldier sent off to foreign lands to kill or be killed, and returning home to little of no support from the war mongering old men who sat out the bullets safely in air conditioned bank vault offices, it is not so much that governments do not spend enough time and money and effort on mental health, although this is part of the problem, it is much deeper and simpler. They, the ruling class and their allies, do not care about poor working class men and women who have no money and therefore no power.

To paraphrase and extend Aristotle -- we all, by our very nature, take pleasure in learning things, in gaining mastery over ourselves and the external world. This changing the external world to our image is what gives us pleasure. This mastering pleasure could come through work or through art or raising a family, or even from our hobbies and interests. When this natural desire, this natural right, to become full members of society is denied to large segments of the population, when their heads are filled with fear of the other, or with vain ideals of getting rich, many will fall and be ground down into the dust, or like the raisin that withers in the sun.

Maybe in a world with no future, in a world ruled by fear and the love of money, suicide can be seen as the final cry of the heart in our heartless world, maybe suicide is the only way left for people who have nothing, and who have no future, to gain some measure of mastery over the external world. Lied to and molested by churches, cynically abused in the quest for power and then discarded by politicians, slipping through the cracks of an underfunded and unappreciated education system, scorned and reviled by a vicious and hateful media that loves success, and abominates failure, what is a poor boy to do? Maybe we should see suicide as that final cry of NO that says I would rather die on my feet than live the rest of my live as a wage slave, under debt bondage.

Of course it would be wrong of the reader to think I am calling for a mass outbreak of suicide, or that I want working class men to kill themselves. Indeed I would wish the exact opposite, for the cure for isolation and despair must surely be action. For many, however, this is not even an option. Since the good old days of Reagan and Thatcher the rulers and ideologues of our current crisis have not only smashed the working class organisations, but more importantly they taken from us optimism, they have destroyed the very idea of the co-operative spirit. So the “working age men” who kill themselves are ones who have been left with nothing and with nowhere to turn. Force fed images of success and manly pride at every turn they have nothing to fall back on, they have no vision for the future. Little one so many fall into the grave prematurely.

I can understand how this article can be seen as offensive, can make some upset. I am speaking, in an informal, mostly anecdotal manner, based on my experiences with depression and suicidal thoughts, and the observations of those whom I have met over the years. I have left out a myriad of possible causes of suicide, I was only wandering around some of the motivations for suicide. In my investigations I have chosen to focus on social economic factors that could lead one to self murder. There are many more issues that have not been named in this article, for this is not the place to enumerate all of the potential causes and triggers of this drastic solution. I understand how this topic may bite with some and cause anger or sadness. That is not at all my intent, like most things my intent is to make sense of the world as I have experienced it.

So what I would like to do now is to offer up some suggestions that may help. First off I would agree to more mental health spending and all those official, bureaucratic sort of solutions that people love to talk about on chatty, vapid current affairs shows. As to the medical, chemical solutions I can only say that I am not so keen on having a generation of young men taking anti-depressants for the rest of their lives. As I am not a doctor so I am not able to comment much more on that aspect of the suicide crisis solution.

I do know that, like the junkie who comes out of rehab and goes back to her old life with her dealer boyfriend, and her crappy housing and her lack of a job and future; or the prisoner released from gaol, set back with no support into the old habits with his old mates, so it is for those who attempt or even contemplate suicide. The crisis averted, the system moves on to the next crisis not able to give the patient the time and effort required.

There is no sense in “curing” a patient, if like the junkie or criminal, they return to same quiet desperation, if they return to no job (or what is even worse than no job, a mindless one-sided sort of work) and no future.

So what needs to be done?

In no particular order, but set out like a list for rhetorical reasons, I have some practical solutions. Maybe not practical in the way a small government, free-market accountant would think of as practical, but practical in the sense of realistically demanding what it is we all should have from life; that is impossible freedom and everything, the entire world. Firstly one must look into education. When Plato wrote of his utopian republic he spent most of the book discussing the need for education. True progressives have always known the importance of education. For education is the royal road to success in a capitalist society. Short of being born wealthy or having some extraordinary good fortune, education is the key to work in our current and future knowledge economy. So access to quality primary and secondary education and affordable high quality child care, as well as access to free tertiary education is the bare minimum for reaching the worthwhile goal of halving the suicide rate in ten years.

In our society of over production and mass consumption it is now possible to cut hours of work to no more than thirty hours a week. People should not have to work any more than two or three days a week, while food and essentials can be made effectively free. Workers who are sick or injured, or mentally disturbed should not be treated as thieves first and humans a distant second. While I do not have the figures at my fingertips, I would be willing to believe that all the fraud against all the dole offices in all of Australia would be significantly less than the seven billion dollars in profit the CBA made last year.

In the same way that poetry ossifies as it moves away from song, so too psychology turns to stone as it ignores and moves away from the class struggle. As important as the sexual urge is in development of the self, so to the urge to work and gaining control over the external world is of equal importance. If one sees the concept of Eros as being greater than the sexual urge, if one understands Eros as being the generative spirit, than one can understand the need for an understanding of class struggle in psychology. Further from this one can see that the role of medical intervention in the suicidal crisis must be something more than getting a person to a position where they are once again content with wage-slavery and debt bondage, with alienating their labour as an end in itself. There is no reason to save someone from suicidal feelings if they are not going to be supported, if they are forced to go back into their poor suburb, back to insecure working conditions, forced to rely on their own devices, and treated like so much refuse that can, and should be tossed away.

Whether it is the soldiers used and abused in imperialist wars, or the unskilled worker, or the single mother, the support should be there and it should be ongoing.

Will this solve the problem completely? No it will not, but with a shorter work week and a more democratic workplace, with greater education and broader training, with proper and on-going support society can go a long way to reducing this tragic statistic. As this would cost money and require effort, sadly in our world dominated as it is by greed and short term idiocy I am not confident things will get better.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Election Day 2013

On election day we went to the local school
To cast our ballot, to teach our children.
I struggled
To overcome the temptation
The upwelling urge to draw
A large cock and balls
Across the ballot paper
Or to scrawl Proletarian Democracy
In bold proud letters. Normalised
I voted. Formally and correctly.

And after we stood in the warming
Sunlight of the later morning
And chatted with neighbours
As kids kicked a ball round oval
And sausage sizzle aroma
Of caramelising onions
And public school desperation
For funds, overwhelmed us
And we, to aid the school.
Bought sausage and chicken
Kebab, one each and a cup of tea.

And we sat and ate and chewed
I mulled and thought. How appropriate!
Thin lifeless white bread,
Like the bulk of candidates.
And thin lifeless sausages
Ground snips and snails
Puppy dog tails. Or Bismark misquoted
If you like laws and sausages,
You should never watch either one being made.