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.

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