John P. Lesko, Editor
Department of English
Saginaw Valley St. Univ
University Center, MI
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
License (Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives 2.5 License).
Like Truth: Discourse Issues In Language
de Ortego y Gasca
Fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism are different facets
in the prism of discourse, all inhering eiconic dimensions.
The word eicon is of Greek origin, and we use its blood
kin icon in a number of ways in English. But the word
spelled as “eicon” was first introduced by Kenneth
Boulding in his work The Image (1956). There the word
“eicon” refers to that collection of impressions
and perceptions that create “image”-Boulding
was addressing creation of a “public image” or persona.
Extending professor Boulding’s notion of “eiconics”
in the creation of a public image, all of us, I daresay, at
some time or other, act or have acted out of “eiconic-governed
behavior”-perhaps “always” some behaviorists
now suggest-a “scanner syndrome” (being watched)
behavior that may engender fabrication, falsification and even
By way of background to eiconic behavior, one school of thought,
in the popular “ jargon” of “transformation”
best sellers, contends that “self-image” or “self-esteem”
is the product of “eiconic" forces, that who we think
we are (our self-internal perception internally
influenced) opposed to who we think others think we are (our
imago-internal perception externally influenced)
is more important to our well-being. Development of the “imago”
is based on internal perception and its projection is determined
by external influences on the “self”. These are
important eiconic parameters in the matrix of perception which,
as Dr. Henry Kissinger once remarked, is oftentimes more important
than reality. To many cultural anthropologists, perception is
reality. Whorf and Sapir, for example, postulated that reality
is the sum of our perceptions whatever their relationships to
reality. Let us consider how this proposition plays out among
human beings in terms of discourse issues in language-particularly
fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.
As sentients, we’re
concerned about how others see us, regard us, think of us. We’re
concerned about “what the neighbors will say” or
“what the guys will think” or “I can’t
wear this dress (or suit) to the party” or some variation
of the above. In some cases we call eiconic-governed behavior
“peer pressure.” No one wants to be “less”
in the “public” eye. “Last one in is a rotten
egg” we shout (or used to shout) as kids. And so, to enhance
our image we learn, acquire, and adopt a variety of image-enhancing
strategies (eiconic strategies) which include fabrication, falsification,
outright lying, exaggeration, embellishment, confabulation,
and hyperbole, to name but a few. To say you went to Yale, for
example, when you didn’t, is a lie. If you didn’t
go to Yale and you say you went to a school as good as Yale,
may be an exaggeration. Depends. Someone mentions a swanky restaurant
and you say “I go there all the time” is an exaggeration
if you’ve only gone there once or twice. You’ve
just got home through heavy traffic and you say “there
were a million cars on the road” is hyperbole. All of
us hyperbolize at times. This is an innocuous form of fabrication.
We don’t pay attention to it. The mother who says to her
child, “I’ve told you a thousand times to wash your
hands before dinner” is using hyperbole to make a point.
Strictly speaking, what she said is a lie. Certainly an exaggeration.
But the purpose of the exaggeration or hyperbole is to impress
the child with the need to wash hands before dinner. We don’t
usually brand hyperbole as a fabrication. We acknowledge it
as colorful language, idiosyncratic at least. It serves a purpose.
What I’m getting at is that sometimes we “mis-speak”
ourselves, falsify to fit the moment. The words may not be an
accurate reflection of the “truth” in these “Pinocchio”
scenarios as Lisa Takeuchi Cullen (2006) calls them. For the
point is not the truth but the “moment.” Cullen
explains that “psychologists call lying a form of impression
management”. Some psychologists consider lying an impairment
of volition, especially chronic lying. My granddaughter asks
if I like spinach as I try to get her to eat the spinach on
her plate. I say “yes,” knowing I loathe spinach.
She asks: “Did you eat your spinach when you were little?”
“Sure,” I reply, knowing I didn’t. Am I lying
to her? Yes. Technically. But for a reason. To create the impression
that I like spinach. That kind of verbal behavior (falsification)
goes on all the time. For example, I’m leaving a dinner
party that I didn’t enjoy, but on my way out I tell the
hostess, “That was a great party; really enjoyed myself.”
The food was terrible and the guests were boring. But I tell
her what she expects to hear in terms of the protocols of civility.
Am I lying? Yes. But the protocols are paramount in the exchange
for both the hostess and for me. These fibs are part of the
“impression management” process. In his Confessions,
Rousseau commented that “to lie without intent and without
harm to oneself or to others is not to lie. . . but a fiction,”
adding that a fiction need not engender reproach.
In his 20/20 interview with Barbara Walters in 1989, Jesse Jackson
explained that he did not actually spit in white people’s
food-though he publicly said he did-when he worked
in a restaurant as a youth during the dark days of the civil
rights struggle. He only said he had done that, he explained,
because saying it was a way of “fighting back.”
Was he lying? Of course. Should we hold his feet to the fire
for that fabrication? I think not, for his words were words
of the moment. Uttered to enhance the context-or the speaker.
The soldier who deports himself less than valiantly during a
battle will not describe himself that way later-perhaps
as he recounts those exploits to his grandchildren. The eiconic
impulse is always to place ourselves in the best possible light.
In my view, these are not high crimes and misdemeanors. Pecadillos?
Yes. But surely forgivable.
Unfortunately, the eiconic matrix includes perceptions by other
people wherein they expect correspondence between “utterance”
and “fact.” Though not an unreasonable expectation,
that’s not always possible because language is a verbal
symbolization of perception and behavior. That was Whorf and
Sapir’s hypothesis: that language influences perception
and behavior. In other words, we can read the symbols in our
own language but cannot comprehend the symbols in someone else’s
language unless versed in that tongue. What I experience is
one thing. How I verbalize that experience in my own language
is something else. And writing about that experience in my own
language recasts the reality of that experience in an entirely
different mode and domain. Thus, in recounting our experiences,
we may consciously or unconsciously resort to fabrication and/or
falsification. This, however, does not absolve us of illicit
conduct and behavior.
The language we speak never really captures “the experience.”
Language is a filter (and at once the conduit) through which
we “strain” experience. In essence, Whorf and Sapir
were saying that the language one speaks shapes one’s
view (reality) of the world. As Paul de Man would have put it,
the words in our accounts of life and of ourselves emerge already
colored (or tainted) by a plethora of factors like emotion,
consciousness, education, awareness, inter alia. When
we tell people about ourselves, we do so using the most imprecise
medium at our disposal-language. Unfortunately it’s
all we’ve got-for the moment-until we get
the hang of Mr. Spock’s Vulcan mind-meld. In short, people
are not always who they seem to be nor who they tell each other
they are. In part, this explains résumé padding
and fictitious degrees. Those transgressions reflect the eiconic
need for agency.
When we speak about ourselves we are translating experience
into symbols of intelligibility we think other people will understand.
But it’s all approximation. Language is never accurate,
as Jacques Derrida knew. While the English word “tree”
is an acceptable transliteration of the Spanish word “arbol”
each word has its own aura of comprehension in its respective
linguistic system. Language is always innately figurative. Ambiguity
attends all linguistic manifestations. As sentients we’ve
become accustomed to that ambiguity-that’s how we
cope with the ambiguities of life, of existence, of the universe.
That’s why a member of the IRA may be a patriot to one
group and a terrorist to another. The production of linguistic
meaning is a constantly shifting ground, some meanings seeking
privilege over others.
It’s this ambiguity
that most often deters us from coming to an unequivocal definition
of the term “plagiarism” in its various forms, one
of the modern “deadly sins,” perhaps because the
term itself is so ambiguous and ambivalent. Sometimes plagiarism
is referred to as “recycling.” This was certainly
true in Shakespeare’s time when-in the absence of
laws of plagiarism-he allegedly purloined most of his
plots and, in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, lifted
almost verbatim an entire passage from Plutarch; not
to mention what he took from Brooke for Romeo and Juliet.
Or in Chaucer’s time when he borrowed freely from French
authors (Ortego, 1970). With these two “gold-standard”
authors, what they plagiarized (unacknowledged copying) has
sometimes been excused as “creative genius” or an
improvement on the original.
Other “great figures” of history have been caught
in the skein of unacknowledged copying. In 1597, the astronomer
Tycho Brahe accused Nicolas Raimanus Ursus, another astronomer,
of plagiarism, of stealing his geoheliocentric world system
theory, drawing Johannes Kepler into the fray. Even Thomas Malthus,
the population theorist, was charged with plagiarism. In Malthus’
case, sociologist William Petersen notes that by putting the
ideas of previous population theorists “into a larger
framework and examining in detail the relation of population
growth to economic, social and political development, Malthus
did more than any of his predecessors or all of them together”
(Dupaquier, 1980). This is characterizing plagiarism as “
creative genius.” In 1916, a plagiarism dispute arose
over whether Albert Einstein or David Hilbert discovered the
general theory of relativity. Like Malthus, Einstein was considered
by many of his peers as an “incorrigible plagiarist”
and charged with copying the theories of others without attribution
(Bjerknes, 2002). The matter remains unresolved, it may seem,
according to Bjerknes' work, although critics of this iconoclast
have noted the disclaimer by Bjerknes, particularly the book's
being "intended solely for entertainment purposes . . .
[and the author's disavowal of responsibility for] the completeness,
or the accuracy, or the adequacy, of any information in"
Albert Einstein, The Incorrigible Plagiarist.
From accounts in
the media on Stephen B. Oates and plagiarism in 1993, I saw
little that would outrightly constitute plagiarism. Oates, professor
of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was
charged with plagiarism by what he called a cabal of “fraud
busters” bent on exposing plagiarism not only in With
Malice Toward None, his book on Lincoln, but also in most
of his previous works (Oates, 2002). Having taken their case
to the American Historical Association, the verdict rendered
by the AHA supported “the cabal,” stating that “Mr.
Oates relied too much and too consistently, even with attribution
[emphasis mine], on ‘the structure, distinctive language,
and rhetorical strategies’ of other scholars and authors.”
Oates denied the charges and not being a member of the AHA refused
to submit to the jurisdiction of the organization. But his case
raised an important distinction between “appropriation”
and “attribution”-albeit an ambiguous distinction.
After a year and a half, the professional division and council
of the AHA absolved Oates of plagiarism but rebuked him for
not having enough references to the Benjamin Thomas biography.
This is a prime example of just how difficult it is at times
to ascertain plagiarism.
As I see it, “plagiarism” is not “expropriation
of another author’s findings or interpretation”
as the American Historical Association (AHA) contends. Those
are different “crimes”-theft and misappropriation.
Plagiarism is the outright use (or claim) of someone else’s
words or works as one’s own. Like putting your name as
author of Hamlet. But creating a play like West
Side Story based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo
and Juliet is not considered outright plagiarism. That’s
making an old idea new. That’s what Dryden did with Shakespeare.
We know who the author is of the original work, the adaptation
can be regarded as a sort of homage to the original and, thus,
considered “a legitimate means of derivative expression.”
In 1968, Mark Medoff (author of Children of a Lesser God)
and I crafted an anti-war musical version of Hamlet
which we called Elsinore. With a lot of license and
a considerable dash of schmaltz the work was well received by
audiences. We were hailed as clever.
Historically, well into the 18th century, writers regularly
embellished the works of well-known figures much the way Dryden
“improved” Shakespeare. In science, for example,
breakthroughs are almost always predicated on previous work.
Attribution is taken for granted. In the realm of ideas, I’m
reminded of Stephen Jay Gould’s acknowledgment in Time’s
Arrow, Time’s Cycle:
I owe a more profound and immediate debt to colleagues who
have struggled to understand the history of geology. I present
this book as a logical analysis of three great documents,
but it is really a collective enterprise. I am embarrassed
that I cannot now sort out and attribute the bits and pieces
forged together here. I am too close to this subject. I have
taught the discovery of time for twenty years, and have read
the three documents over and over again (for I regard such
repetition as the best measuring stick of an intellectual
life-when new insights cease, move on to something else).
I simply do not remember which pieces came from my own read-ings
of Burnet, Hutton, and Lyell, and which from Cooykaas, or
Ruwick, Porter, or a host of other thinkers who have inspired
me-as if exogony and endogeny could form separate categories
in any case.
“Bits and pieces forged together”-that’s
the process of learning. Our data banks are full of “bits,
pieces, and bytes” of information from which we draw to
fill our own views, opinions, and utterances. Over time, as
Gould has explained, it’s difficult to know where exactly
those bits and pieces came from. Do they appear in our texts
naturally? Some bits and pieces are so unique we forego the
need for attribution because we know everybody else recognizes
those bits and pieces. Richard Brookhiser (2006) likens these
bits and pieces to literary “lint” that “sticks
to your mind” eventually becoming your “own”
words, adding that “good writing is rife with inherited
conventions and silent quotations.”
It would be hard for me (and foolish) to begin the opening of
a speech with the words “Four score and seven years ago”
without attribution. But to start out with “Some time
ago our ancestors” and go on from there, paraphrasing
or borrowing from Lincoln’s ideas in the Gettysburg Address,
does not strike me as plagiarism. That’s drawing from
the common storehouse of ideas we have access to. Ideas aren’t
proprietary. We can patent a particular application of an idea
(a mousetrap), for instance, but not the idea itself (the idea
of a mousetrap). Ideas can give rise to any number of applications.
The applications are patentable.
In 1988, Senator Joseph Biden’s use of British Labor Party
leader Neal Kinnock’s theme of personal poverty and self-determination
to his constituents was but another application of a theme that
was not Kinnock’s property in the first place. He’s
not the originator of that theme. What he owns is his application
of the theme, nothing more. Appropriation of his application,
word for word, would be plagiarism. But Senator Biden “adapted”
an application of an already common theme for his own purposes
in order to make a point -a good point. Because the theme
was appropriate to the moment of his text, Senator Biden paraphrased
Kinnock’s theme. But Biden was knocked out of the presidential
nomination box not for his lack of attribution to Kinnock, but
other exaggerations. As an Hispanic I’ve drawn many times
from that theme of personal poverty and self-determination in
order to make a point about Hispanic progress in the United
Why is it that
I'm the first Hispanic to acquire the Ph.D. in English at
the University of New Mexico? Is it because we're less intelligent?
Less able? No, that's not the case. After a long day's labor
in the fields, our parents would sit us down to read and write
because they wanted a better life for us in this country.
A part of the reason we don't have more Hispanic Ph.D.'s is
that we don't have our own institutions.
The essence of my
words parallel those of Kinnock’s. Is that plagiarism?
I spoke my words long before Kinnock uttered his. I did not
get them from him. Did he get them from me? If so, he didn’t
give me credit. Obviously he did not get that theme from me
because the words are part of a “common” theme-of
overcoming obstacles, battling with adversity, “making
it.” And when that thought is expressed by others, and
we realize how much it applies to our own lives, we adapt the
thought to fit our own circumstances. That’s what Senator
about the narrow view the media (and the public, as a consequence)
has placed on the question of plagiarism in, say, Senator Biden’s
application of Kinnock’s “application” of
a stock theme. By those standards, any concatenation of words
(written or spoken) by anyone can be construed as plagiarism
because any number of English-speakers before us have used those
same words in like concatenations. In his piece in The New
York Observer, Richard Brookhiser (2006) asks: “How
can anyone steal words?” That’s my question too.
Words belong to all of us. They’re part and parcel of
our languages. Indeed, words selected and arranged in a particular
way in a text by one writer and then copied and passed off as
original by another writer is plagiarism. But the addition of
words to our vocabularies is part of the process of language
Let me draw attention
to the ending of President Reagan’s commentary to the
nation on the day the Challenger was lost in 1986: the president
closed with words about “touching the face of God.”
The thrust of his closing comment comes directly from the poem
“High Flight” by John Magee which explains: “I
have slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of
God.” I don’t recall the President citing the source
of that thought. Nor did I note Robert Frost getting any credit
for the Ford Motor Company ad that says “If you’ve
got miles to go and promises to keep” you should get a
Also, consider the ending of Chapter 3 of Barbara Tuchman’s
A Distant Mirror. She concludes her observations on the
Chivalric Code with the words:
Yet if the code was but veneer over violence, greed, and sensuality,
it was nevertheless an ideal, as Christianity was an ideal,
towards which man’s reach, as usual exceeded his grasp.
“Man’s reach . . . exceeded his grasp.” Robert
Browning’s words are: “A man’s reach ought
to exceed his grasp.” Professor Tuchman’s words
(or thoughts) there are not attributed to Browning. They are
not set off by quotation marks or cited in a footnote. And there
is really no need for attribution there, for Browning’s
words have become part of the common storehouse of thought from
which we draw freely. In fact, so freely that unless we are
lettered writers we more often than not have no idea who the
authors are of those thoughts that are in that common storehouse.
Additionally, though, Tuchman is aware that the “literate”
reader knows the origin of the reference. In my short story
of some years ago, “Chicago Blues,” I used an inverted
reference to T.S. Eliot when the lead character says, “That’s
how the world would end, not with a whimper but with a blast.”
I used that expression knowing the literate reader would make
the association with Eliot. There was no need for attribution
In Professor Oates’ case: How does one “paraphrase”
a fact, a datum? The question is not how close Oates’
paraphrases approximate Benjamin Thomas’ words but where
Thomas got his facts from in the first place? How does he know
“Spanish moss festooned the trees”? Perhaps Oates
should have written “. . . the trees were covered with
Spanish moss,” rather than “ . . . the trees were
festooned with Spanish moss.” I like the word “festooned”
myself. Thomas doesn’t own that word. Besides, it seems
to me Oates altered the concatenation sufficiently. I’m
not surprised the AHA (American Historical Association) perceived
Oates’ work as “derivative.” That’s
the nature of accumulated scholarship-one works from material
others have left for us, as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out. Or
as Jean Paul Sartre indicated in Les Mots (The Words,
1964), the writer is inspired by the “I’s"
of memory: imagination, invention, and imitation. The beginning
writer borrows from other writers until he or she acquires his
or her literary voice. As a child, so as to feel like a writer,
Sartre reveals, “I loved plagiarism” (p. 88). Eventually
he plagiarized less as he got the hang of “joining”
things up. Eventually we all find our own voice.
Sometimes, however, we have information we are unaware we have
or how we got it. For example, some critics have pointed out
that Nabokov got the title and theme for “Lolita”
from a German short story published in 1916 which he may have
read when he was in Berlin in the 20's. Over time, Nabokov may
have forgotten that he had read that story. This kind of memory
lapse has been labeled cryptomnesia. Given the billions
of information bytes that humans process, cryptomnesia
is not an unusual phenomenon. However, this does not excuse
outright plagiarism. But it does help to explain the eidetic
complexities of memory. How bits and pieces of information get
lost in the maze of memory or get stuck there like “lint.”
In the world of ideas, a writer’s “voice”
runs into challenges when least expected. For example, Dan Brown,
the 39-year old former teacher of English from New Hampshire
and author of The Da Vinci Code with a plot about the
marriage of Jesus Christ to Mary Magdalene and its suppression,
has run into charges from Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh
that Brown “lifted the whole architecture” of research
they carried out for their non-fiction work Holy Blood,
Holy Grail which they co-wrote with Henry Lincoln. Baigent
and Leigh argue that Brown appropriated without acknowledgment
their all-important list of the Grand Masters-who guarded
the secret documents pertaining to Christ’s bloodline
out of his liaison with Mary Magdalene. Baigent and Leigh also
contend that the premise and factual research of Brown’s
novel are plagiarized from their original historical hypothesis.
To shore up their charge, Baigent and Leigh point out that the
name of Sir Leigh Teabing in Brown’s novel is an anagram
of Leigh and Baigent. A court settlement absolved Brown of the
charge, buttressing the proposition that plagiarism is not always
easy to pin down despite Lyon, Barrett, and Malcom’s opinion
to the contrary (2006).
In 2002, the historian Stephen Ambrose ran afoul of “fraud
busters” with charges that passages of The Wild Blue,
his best-seller about World War II B-24 bomber crews, were taken
from Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber
Shot Down over Germany in World War II by Thomas Childers.
Like Oates, Ambrose’s previous works have become suspect
of plagiarism. In a closely argued defense of Ambrose, Richard
Jenson (2002) exonerates Ambrose from the charge of plagiarism,
though Ambrose did apologize for the transgression. A number
of prominent writers, especially historians, have been charged
with plagiarism, notable among them Doris Kearns Goodwin and
her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys with
passages similar to those in other works, including Lynne McTaggert’s
Kathleen Kennedy. The most scathing rebuke of Ambrose
and Godwin’s literary pecadillos appeared in an editorial
of The New York Observer (" New publishing mantra,"
2006) which excoriated not the authors but their publishers,
saying “It’s clear Mr. Ambrose and Ms. Godwin’s
editors were too cowed by the authors’ fame to bring up
any doubts they might have had” about possible plagiarism.
Strictly speaking, the case of the 27 year old Jayson Blair
of the New York Times is more about dubious reporting,
creating stories out of whole cloth, than about plagiarism,
though accounts of his journalistic pecadillos have him lifting
pieces of stories from other journalists and wire service accounts.
The editors of the Times found fraud, plagiarism, and
inaccuracies in 36 of his 73 articles. I don’t minimize
the import of plagiarism. In 1975, I ran across a piece that
lifted from 36 sections of a work I produced in 1970. The matter
was settled to the satisfaction of all. Today I color that episode
with humor, glossing the value of my original piece such that
it was worthy of plagiarism.
There are countless cases of putative plagiarism. In its April
3, 2006 issue, Time Magazine highlighted a plagiarism
blurb about Ben Domenech, 24 year old co-founder of the blog
Red State who was working at Red America,
a Washington Post blog. Domenech was confronted by
“fraud busters” who saw passages in his work “suspiciously
similar to other journalists” and “uncomfortably
resembl[ing] those by writers” elsewhere. About his piece
in the National Review Online the charge was that some
“unique phrasing” was lifted from a piece by Steve
Murray of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The choice
of words in charges of plagiarism provide significant clues
about the idiosyncratic perspectives on plagiarism and just
how difficult it is sometimes to define the act of plagiarism.
Throughout my academic career as a professor of English I have
stressed that “good writing comes from good reading,”
despite Paul de Man’s perspective of the latter. A key
input to our individual lexicons of knowledge comes from reading.
That’s why the primacy of literacy is so important in
global societies. It seems only natural that reading reinforces
the engramming process of experience. This is the explanation
offered by the” wunderkind” Kaavya Viswanathan for
her plagiarism of Megan McCafferty’s works Sloppy
Firsts and Second Helpings, works which Viswanathan
contends she internalized so thoroughly that McCafferty’s
words stuck in her mind like Brookhiser’s “lint”
in her “photographic memory.” Eidetically it’s
possible! But forty “echoes” of Mc-Cafferty’s
works in Viswanathan’s novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed,
Got Wild, and Got a Life does seem a bit much.
Recently, a charge of plagiarism was lodged against Raytheon
chief William Swanson, who, it is alleged, knowingly included
in his booklet Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management
a considerable number of rules from W.J. King’s Unwritten
Laws of Engineering published in 1944. Dated language and
almost word for word correspondence between Swanson’s
rules and King’s rules have made it hard for Swanson to
dodge the charge. But Swanson’s defense is that over the
years he jotted down on scraps of paper rules of management
that he came across in his reading which he saved, ultimately
publishing them as Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management
under the aegis of Raytheon’s imprint. By way of mitigation,
he points out, in the past these rules were passed around so
frequently that their attribution was blurred or lost. Swanson
attributes the word for word correspondence between his rules
and King’s to coincidence. But his critics contend that
“It seems like too much of a coincidence.” Raytheon
has copyrighted Swanson’s booklet and has given away some
40,000 copies from its website (Jones, 2006).
When I was Dean of the Hispanic Leadership Institute at Arizona
State University in the late 1980's I used to provide my leadership
students with aphorisms that were appropriate for the instruction
of the day. Like Swanson, I too used to jot down aphorisms when
I came across them and saved them for potential use. Unfortunately
their attribution faded over time. Not remembering who their
originators were, humorously I attributed those aphorisms to
Aphoro, indicating that they came from The First Book of
Aphoro. The aphorisms were not mine so I could not and
would not take credit for them. The locution about The First
Book of Aphoro was indeed a ploy. The originators of those
aphorisms should have been duly credited. But like Stephen Jay
Gould and William Swanson, I could not for the life of me remember
who to cite as the originators of those aphorisms. Periodically
I see those aphorisms here and there, still circulated without
Discourse Issues in a Prism of Ambiguity
Theory and literature on eiconic behavior is scant, to say the
least. What I proposed about eiconic behavior at the start of
this piece is principally anecdotal, though there is an incipient
body of empirical support. Nevertheless, there appears to be
some correspondence between the behaviors that engender fabrication,
falsification, and plagiarism. Is it aberrant or wayward behavior
or simply a propensity of human nature? I don’t know.
What I think, however, is that there are eiconic forces at work
in fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism engendered, perhaps,
by mental immaturity, low self-esteem, lack of literary skills,
or otiosely induced intellectual laziness which ignite the need
to project oneself in the best possible light, even at the risk
of disclosure as was the case recently of an American in the
Northwest who had been passing himself off as a Vietnam prisoner-of-war.
More and more “fraudulent representations” of this
kind surface every day.
In the fields of academe, specters of plagiarist bounty hunters
or plagiarist busters acting as lexical vigilantes undertake
the role of keeping Freshman student papers free of plagiarism,
seemingly oblivious that language is a shared commodity, that
we learn our language from the “modeling” of others.
In other words, all our utterances have their genesis in others,
the aim of instruction is to have our students become familiar
with the thoughts and ideas of others. That’s how one
generation transmits its values to the next. This is not to
say we do not hope for original thoughts or ideas from our students.
But there is a storehouse of thoughts and ideas that are common
currency, available to all. So much that there is little if
any need for attribution.
I concede that taking someone else’s text and putting
one’s name on it is indeed plagiarism; and as Richard
Brookhiser (2006) puts it: “plagiarism is never a shortcut,
it is a dead end.” But borrowing a turn of phrase that
enhances our discourse is not a high crime subject to expulsion
or anathema. Why criminalize such linguistic behavior? Borrowing
is in the nature of linguistic interaction. In this linguistic
interaction, idiolects are like consenting adults interacting
with each other. But this does not lessen the growing “culture
of surveillance with the work of fingering and tracking writers
who plagiarize” (Harris, 2005).
Indeed, quotation marks and attribution are essential when we
use someone else’s words verbatim in our texts. Paraphrasing,
however, is permissible, though there again we “encourage”
students to cite sources. As Associate Director of a Freshman
Writing Program early in my career, I drilled my students in
the ethics of attribution and the documentation of sources.
Citation is not an absolute requirement for paraphrasing because
we’re delighted to see students handling the ideas of
others, incorporating them into their own weltanschauung.
That’s why we teach the ideas of others to our students.
Until fairly modern times, learning reflected the accumulated
ideas of past
generations. The mark of erudition was the ability to incorporate
the ideas of previous sages into one’s own articulations.
Summing up, some representations and utterances may be outright
distortions, falsifications or fabrications of experience. Other
representations or utterances may be made only to enhance the
moment or the context. For instance, a comedian may talk disparagingly
about his wife or her husband during his or her act, none of
which may be true. Alan King (a comedian of the 60's and 70's)
is a good example of that. Phyllis Diller (a comedienne of the
60's and 70's) is another example of comedic disparagement.
The ambiguity of existence may be why language is equally ambiguous.
It seems to me that fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism
are discourse issues in the prism of that ambiguity.
Bjerknes, C.J. (2002).
Albert Einstein, the Incorrigible Plagiarist. Downers
Grove, IL: XTC Inc.
Boulding, K. (1956).
The Image: Knowledge In Life and Society. Ann Arbor,
MI: University of Michigan Press.
Brookhiser, R. (2006,
May 8). Here’s an original thought: How can anyone steal
words? New York Observer, 4.
Cullen, L.T. (2006,
May 1). Getting wise to lies. Time, 167, 59-59.
Dupaquier, J. (1980).
Malthus reconsidered. Contemporary Sociology, 9, 4.
Gould, S.J. (1988).
Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle. Harvard University Press.
Harris, B. (2005).
“Credit where credit is due. Education Libraries,
Jenson, R. (2002,
May 20). In defense of Stephen Ambrose. History News Network.
Retrieved from http://hnn.us/articles/738.html
Jones, D. (2006,
April 25). Raytheon chief says he didn't plagiarize. USA
Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/money/companies/management/2006-04-24-raytheon-ceo-responds_x.htm
Lyon, C., Barrett,
R. and Malcolm, J. (2006). Plagiarism is easy, but also easy
to detect. Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism,
Fabrication, and Falsification. Retrieved from http://www.plagiary.org/papers_and_perspectives.htm
New publishing mantra:
Plagiarize or perish. (2006, May 8). New York Observer.
Retrieved from http://www.observer.com/20060508/20060508___opinions_editorials.asp
Oates, S. (2002).
I stood accused of plagiarism. History News Network.
Retrieved from http://hnn.us/articles/658.html
Ortego, F. (1970,
July-September). A bibliography of Chaucer’s French sources.
Bulletin of Bibliography and Magazine Notes.
Sartre, J.P. (1964).
Les Mots [The Words]. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications.
Tuchman, B. (1987).
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Ballantine
Million Little Pieces of Shame
revelations about the Frey "memoir," A Million
Little Pieces , like the earlier tall tales in Mutant
Messenger (first published as a first-person account, then
as a bestselling work of fiction), discredit the author, who'd
have been better advised by his publisher or agent to publish
the book as fiction in the first place. Not since Charles Van
Doren was exposed as a Quiz Show phony has so much ruckus been
raised about intellectual fraud. Not even lies to start a horrific
war can so arouse the American people.
real responsibility for the Frey affair lies with the entire
industry of book-hyping--dependent on well-financed promotion,
the link between advertising and reviewing, and media that seem
obliged to maintain hysteria-level gushing over this book or
that. They were there for Clifford Irving when he did his fraudulent
pseudo-biography of Howard Hughes. They are there for historians
who plagiarize with little harm to their careers. They are there
for novelists who lift material submitted to editors who then
pass on great notions to their more fashionable authors, then
reject the submitted manuscripts.
are there for the greatest liars of all, celebrities and politicians
who rely on ghostwriters for every sentence they "write."
They are there for the phonies with absurd pseudo-memoirs claiming
to be fugitives from Nazis or bona fide Navajos or Cherokees.
They are there for white men whose manuscripts are rejected,
then published and hyped when they change their names to give
them tribal heritage.
are not there though for authors with publishers who can afford
neither advertising nor any other promotion or even copies to
compete for major awards. But when those awards go predictably
to Adrienne Rich for poetry and Philip Roth for the novel, small
press editors shouldn't bother to compete with the rubber stamping
why this de facto censorship (consigning equally impressive
works to oblivion) and selective blustering and you'll be led
into a field worthy of analysis in college courses addressing
the dynamics of lofting books into best sellerdom heaven. Factors
include political correctness and the author's profile (hence
'Lit Chicks' -- I believe they are called -- and the new generation
of photogenic fiction writers hyped by The New Yorker).
First fall in love with their glitzy portraits, then you might
work hard enough to see merit in their work. Unfortunately the
priority is not truth or authenticity. As with politics we have
a culture in which it is perfectly possible for the least competent
to rise all the way to the heights.
regard the occasional exposé of a fraudulent memoir as
business as usual. Plagiarism, censorship, propaganda and other
forms of inauthenticity are inseparable. Anyone who seriously
studies the media, whether in solitude or groups, knows that
de facto censorship is pervasive and that some ideas are never
permitted into the arena of debate. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn
came to America decades ago, he soon decided that censorship
was just as pervasive as in Stalinist Russia.
I taught at Cornell University I discovered that the senior
who had won the prestigious undergraduate poetry prize bestowed
by the English department had plagiarized the work of a Boston
poet whose poems had appeared in a little known magazine. When
confronted with his fraud the winner became combative and resentfully
returned the money. But he kept the prestige. Professors who
had recommended him for a Harvard fellowship refused to expose
him, partly out of concern with Cornell's reputation. In brief,
they covered up for him, and the student went on to an incredibly
impressive academic and publishing career. That same year another
earlier case was belatedly discovered, also involving a plagiarist
who profited greatly from his successful deceptions. He became
a distinguished editor with a "hot" academic career--you’d
recognize his name. There are other well-known cases, the scandals
circulating around the universities like racy gossip, but seldom
leading to an embarrassment like that of Charles Van Doren,
though I don't think he was ill-treated after the quiz show
academics give up on sleuthing plagiarism, since indifference
is usually the result -- it’s a white collar crime. It
seems pointless if no one gets the point. An absence of conscience
is conspicuous in both the offender and those who learn of his
offense. After a time even a freshman English teacher might
feel like he or she is being bombarded with neutrinos, not cheaters.
(Computers have made plagiarists far more impressive with their
copy work, but also easier to catch.) But why bother to challenge
them? As Auden wrote, "intellectual disgrace stares from
every human face."
publishers, the academic world easily forgives book thieves
both of the physical variety and the authorial. A graduate student
at Bowling Green State University when I taught there stole
many valuable books from the impressive special collections
of the library and was able to regale with impunity his friends
among faculty and students. Even the curator seemed unconcerned
when the losses were called to his attention.
the other hand, plagiarism can be a symptom of a major identity
problem. When I discovered at Cornell that one of my writing
students had plagiarized the poetry of the great poet Trakl,
his denial turned out to be sincere. He had been so disturbed,
the campus psychiatrist found, by the suicidal imagery of the
poem that he had unconsciously introjected and re-created it,
verbatim. The student was at risk of suicide, and was quietly
expelled from campus (again, the concern was for the university,
not the student).
then I have seen that poet’s work in The New Yorker
and in the pages of a magazine where he was shown carrying a
Communist flag in a May Day parade. Privately I’ve taken
some pride in having saved his life, for I know that if certain
other colleagues had dealt with the case the boy might have
fulfilled his threat of killing himself. I took him to the psychiatrist,
not the Dean of Students, who would have informed the student’s
father. “If my father finds out, I’ll kill myself,”
the student said. Some time ago I learned to look at the bottom
of the human mind in certain cases, and that was one of those
moments - not a senior one, but a perspicuous one. Saving
lives is a just reason for some pride, in my humble opinion.
success after that of James Frey, still able to count on the
support of the publishing world, requires the willing complicity
of innumerable bureaucrats of publishing and commerce. Did his
publisher lose interest in his work or accelerate their fervor
for it? Did the New York Times' "Best
Sellers" list refuse to list his book? Was he banished
from anyplace? Paid less for appearances? Invited onto fewer
talk shows? When he appeared for his ritual shaming by Oprah,
his distinguished publisher appeared with him, and when he claimed
that he had wisdom teeth removed without Novocain, she chimed
in that she too had undergone that experience. So what's incredible
about it? I was reminded of the good hostess one afternoon outside
Ithaca when a guest accidentally, during target practice, shot
a hole in her porch gutter. She gracefully took the pistol and
shot two holes in it just to show him it was no big deal.
think that any of those who participate in literary frauds do
not retain some satisfaction in having regretted their involvement
all the way to the bank is as illusory as assuming that those
who have led us into a horrid war regret its loss of life. Be
they politicians, authors who benefit, or "book people"
who empower the process, they suffer no punishments, have no
shame, and take it all to the bank, while the books involved
go into new printings.
The New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, writing
of the Frey fraud, asked "O-prah! How Could Ya?" Oprah,
it seems, heard the question, and responded by giving Frey another
hour of invaluable publicity, though she gave him a whuppin',
as another columnist put it.
those of us (including Oprah) who have shared the painful truths
of our pasts, often life-threatening and shared only after years
of secrecy and the shame of victimhood, therapy, and stigma,
can only be insulted by the preference in "memoirs"
for tall tales over accounts of what we wish had never been
true in our lives. A culture of inauthenticity assures that
lies will always trump truth. If that were not the case we would
not have successful politicians who build lie upon lie on a
daily basis. Only once in my lifetime has a president been impeached
for a lie, though most if not all presidents have told them
like the champion fibbers of elementary school. They may not
be called pathological liars, and therefore we must conclude
that they live in a pathological culture, one where pride and
profit can be taken while paying lip service to truth. If we
start with Santa Claus and the tooth fairy we should, perhaps,
not be so surprised if we wind up with Big Brother and Mutant