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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Richard Posner on Plagiarism; the Case of Yambo Ouloguem

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 01/09/07 at 12:16 PM

Via the Literary Saloon, I learn that Richard Posner has a new book on plagiarism out, called The Little Book of Plagiarism. There are already some reviews, including the Louisville Courier-Journal (which includes an interesting tidbit: the University of Oregon has been accused of plagiarizing its plagiarism policy from Stanford University). The Times review, by Charles McGrath, is more thorough, partly because McGrath is also reviewing a scholarly book by Tilar Mazzeo, called Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period.

When McGrath gets into Mazzeo’s understanding of plagiarism at the end of the 18th century, things start to get interesting:

In style and methodology, Ms. Mazzeo’s new book is an academic wheezer, a retooled dissertation perhaps, but it’s also smart and insightful, and points out that 18th-century writers took a certain amount of borrowing for granted. What mattered was whether you were sneaky about it and, even more important, whether you improved upon what you took, by weaving it seamlessly into your own text and adding some new context or insight.

Interestingly, the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally recently defended Mr. McEwan in just this way, writing, “Fiction depends on a certain value-added quality created on top of the raw material, and that McEwan has added value beyond the original will, I believe, be richly demonstrated.” In the case of “Atonement,” the principle seems inarguable, but it’s also a slippery slope. You could argue that Kaavya Viswanathan improved upon the raw material of the Megan McCafferty novel she relied on so liberally, and yet no one is rushing to her defense. (link)

In short, in the early 19th century a certain amount of borrowing was taken for granted and even allowed, as long as it was well-concealed and accompanied by fresh insights and work—“value-added.” And today, while both the law concerning plagiarism and the ethos of originality are quite different (today plagiarism is generally seen as shameful), some of the same thinking is still used, especially when there are gray areas (as in the McEwan case).

* * *
Speaking of gray areas, there are a number of them in the case of a famous plagiarist from the 1960s that I only recently learned about, the Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem. 

Here’s the back-story, as provided by Richard Serrano (author of a recent book called Against the Postcolonial):

In 1968 the Malian Yambo Ouloguem’s novel Le Devoir de violence [English: Bound to Violence] was published by Editions du Seuil to widespread critical acclaim, culminating in the Prix Renaudot the same year. Reviewers and literary critics in the West praised the novel’s “authenticity,” some hailing it as the first authentic African novel ever written (as it was described on the back cover of the American edition). Matthiew Gallez, writing for Le Monde, called it the first African novel “digne de ce nom” [worthy of this name].

After the English edition was published in 1971, an anonymous article appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, noting that certain passages in Bound to Violence appeared to plagiarize Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield. The TLS writer even noted the irony that the novel’s heralded African “authenticity” was at least partly derived from the text of a British travel writer:

Yambo Ouloguem said on television that he ‘wrote this book in French but followed the traditional African rhythms and the spirit of the African past.’ It presumably says something for Graham Greene that, even before he went to a continent that later much concerned him he was capable of effortlessly conveying its traditional rhythms. (cited in Serrano)

And shortly thereafter, it was discovered that Ouloguem had borrowed—even more heavily—from a French novel by Andre Schwartz-Bart, Le Dernier des justes (1959), which had, also ironically, won the same literary prize—the Prix Renaudot. And in a manner characterisitc of plagiarism, once discovered, it seemed to spread: “citations” were soon found to half a dozen other writers, listed by Serrano as “Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, Pascal, Godard, and in the English translation, T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson.”

Graham Greene filed suit, and Bound to Violence was banned in France. Ouloguem himself went back to Mali shortly after all this transpired, gave up fiction, and took up Islam. (The critic Christopher Wise visited him there in the mid-1990s, and discovered him to be somewhat disturbed; he was spouting various conspiracy theories, and refused to directly address the controvery over his work)

But here’s the thing: shortly after all of this broke, Ouologuem himself claimed that the passages he took from other writers were in quotations in his original manuscript, and that those quotations were omitted by his publisher. As Christopher Wise notes, the publisher has never specifically denied this—but it’s also clear that the original manuscript of Le Devoir de violence has never been made public, which would allow Ouologuem’s claim to be definitively supported. (The status of the manuscript isn’t discussed in the Ouologuem scholarship I’ve read.)

Once one starts looking closely at some of the specific instances of plagiarism in the text, especially from the Andre Schwartz-Bart, it begins to be clear that Ouologuem wasn’t just randomly grabbing nice passages for his own use—Schwartz-Bart’s book is about the experience of European Jewry from the medieval period up through the Holocaust, and many of the passages that Ouologuem appropriates are in fact tied (in Ouologuem’s redployment of them) to the advent of the early (pre-European) Arab slave trade in Mali, an event that Ouologuem views as catastrophic (Holocaust-esque). Moreover, postcolonial critics like Christopher Miller and Kwame Anthony Appiah have argued that Ouologuem’s other borrowings are equally strategic—that is to say, they are used ironically, to send up European misrepresentations of Africa. As Miller puts it, “this is a novel so highly refined and perverse in its manner of lifting titles, phrases, and passages from other texts that it makes the binary system of quotation and firect narration irrelevant” (cited in Serrano, 18). And Appiah, in his defense of Ouologuem, sees Bound to Violence as specifically a rejection of the first generation of modern African novels:

[T]he first generation of modern African novels—the generation of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Laye’s L’Enfant noir--were written in the context of notions of politics and culture dominant in the French and British university and publishing worlds in the fifties and sixties. This does not mean that they were like novels written in Western Europe at that time: for part of what was held to be obvious both by these writers and by the high culture of Europe of the day was that new literatures in new nations should be anticolonial and nationalist. These early novels seem to belong to the world of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary nationalism; they are theorized as the imaginative recreation of a common cultural past that is crafted into a shared tradition by the writer. . . . The novels of this first stage are thus realist legitimations of nationalism: they authorize a ‘return to traditions’ while at the same time recognizing the demands of a Weberian rationalized modernity. (cited in Serrano, 23)

Ouloguem’s novel is harshly critical of African nationalism, and in fact, reserves its greatest hostility for the violence Africans committed against other Africans (though the Europeans don’t get off scot-free; there is a brilliant parody of western anthropology in chapter four, which you can read online). For Appiah, this ideological critique mirrors the novel’s formal disintegration—the story is convoluted, and must be, as a refutation of the false clarity in the first generation of African novels. And this argument might even be extended to explain Ouologuem’s gratuitous borrowings; plagiarism may be a way of showing contempt for the entire ethos of European/colonial writing.

Well, maybe. Though Wise, Appiah, and others are firmly committed to defending Ouologuem (while Serrano remains a bit hostile), it might be that the most intelligent position on Ouologuem would neither aim to exonerate him nor convict him all over again. There is clearly a commentary on the ideas of authorship and authenticity at play in many of the specific instances of plagiarism in his text. But there are also problems of intellectual property that have to be contended with; a decision has to be made about whether strategic or polemical borrowings such as the kind Ouologuem makes can be rendered acceptable (and one notes that the reasons given for those borrowings are adduced by critics, not by Ouologuem himself, though they are consistent with the idea that Ouologuem intended for the borrowed passages to have quotes around them). What one might study (or teach) is not just the book, but the controversy the book has generated—Ouolgouem, and the “Ouoluguem Affair,” if you will. In this light, Ouologuem, I believe, is in the plagiarism gray area after all.

* * *
Incidentally, another excerpt from Ouloguem’s novel is here, and there’s a 1971 interview here. Also see an article in TNR that covers much of this same ground, as well as the Yambo Ouologuem Forum, a weblog started by Ouologuem’s daughter, Awa.


Something I recently wrote on plagiarism in the context of 17th-century medical art--the subject of plagiarism in literature is discussed far more frequently than plagiarism in art--but this is consonant with what Mazzeo says about 18c. writers:


Recyclings and copies of pedagogical medical images were common in the 17th century: the famous prints of Vesalius would be pirated all over Europe, in medical texts by Helkiah Crooke, Juan de Valverde and others, even cropping up as late as the Encyclopédie (1751-65) of Diderot and D’Alembert. William Cowper was embroiled in a public spat with Govard Bidloo after he copied the latter’s fine plates without acknowledgement. For the most part this practice was quite acceptable, and even admired—-Valverde openly admitted his use of Vesalius:

“Although it seemed to some of my friends that I should make new illustrations without using those of Vesalius, I did not do so, in order to avoid the confusion that could follow. . . and because his illustrations are so well done that it would like envy or malignity not to take advantage of them.”

Diderot, likewise, explains that his use of Vesalius is purely pragmatic: ‘M. Tarin, chargé de l’Anatomie, s’éstoit appliqué à chercher dans chaque auteur les figures reconnues pour les meilleures’.

By Conrad on 01/09/07 at 03:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Conrad, thanks for pointing us to your post. I really like the idea of a work of art (and science!) so good that it’s almost criminal not to copy it.

(By the way, is there a word missing from the quote from Valverde? Should it be “so well done that it would BE like envy not or malignity not to take advantage of them”?)

Incidentally, Denis Dutton has a nice article on Forgery and Plagiarism where he talks about the similarities and differences regarding ownership of visual art vs. writing.

By Amardeep Singh on 01/09/07 at 03:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why is it that “a decision has to be made about whether strategic or polemical borrowings such as the kind Ouologuem makes can be rendered acceptable”? I liked it better when you wrote “the most intelligent position on Ouologuem would neither aim to exonerate him nor convict him all over again” and I think there’s a distinct difference. I mean, if you’re the lucky British judge who has to deal with Graham Greene’s law suit, then yes, I understand why you care.  But why do *we* care?  On what basis does the issue of property rights (which seems to me to be firmly within the sphere of commerce) necessarily extend into literary criticism? I just wonder how useful it is to use a legal concept like plagiarism as a metaphor for what a writer like Ouologuem is doing. And, after all, is plagiarism even the right legal analogy for what Ouologuem was doing?  When my students plagiarize, they take someone else’s work and put their own name to it, the opposite of “value-added.” What Ouologuem did looks a lot more like hip-hop sampling, which is generally winked at.
Thanks for the posting; I really enjoyed it. Maybe I’m just griping because the only time people talk about this novel is when they want to talk about plagiarism!

By mwanafunzi on 01/09/07 at 05:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks very much for this post, Amardeep. During my MA at Western Washington University (1997-99), I was in Christopher Wise’s seminar, and we read this very book. He--Wise, that is--is a marvelous human being, and it was a real privilege to study with him.

I have to say, though, that I’ve found Ouloguem’s “defense” distressing. I simply don’t buy the “lost quotation marks” argument. It looks to me, rather, that either Ouloguem, faced with anger over what he had done, blinked. Instead of defending the work on the basis of its originality (ironically enough, an originality-through-pastiche/theft), he tried to defend it on the very grounds--proper citation, “authorial originality,” “authenticity of the native informant for the benefit of consoling the guilt of the Western reader"--that his book had aimed in part to destroy. It’s the assault of the book itself--whatever Ouloguem intended--on these things that most interests me. This is how I would “render his borrowings acceptable” (so I guess I’m with Appiah"), although I’m unsure whether you mean aesthetically acceptable or legally acceptable. With that latter bit, we get into digital media, DRM, and material better handled by the folks at boingboing or by Negativland than by me.

I would rather leave Ouloguem out of it altogether. What he was is irrevocably lost to us, and probably him too, as what he is now is irrelevant to the Francophone secular(ist?) author he once was.

By on 01/09/07 at 06:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve just made a post that’s relevant here:


It’s about a well-known medley combining “What a Wonderful World” and “Over the Rainbow.” There’s no question of plagiarism here, the sources are acknowledged and, presumably, appropriate royalties paid. But the artist in question, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole recomposes the melody of “Rainbow” in a drastic way and modifies that of “Wonderful” less drastically. He’s clearly using this material for his own purposes, but quotation is not what he’s up to. As for authenticity—a concept that makes me cringe—Kamakawiwo’ole clearly and explicitly conceived this medley as a contribution to or statement about traditional Hawaiian music. As far as I can tell that’s how it’s accepted in Hawaii.

By Bill Benzon on 01/09/07 at 06:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s a sophisticated defense of Kaavya Viswanathan:

Let’s dispose of copyright infringement first. Even if Ms. Viswanathan had copied 24 passages literally from Ms. McCafferty’s work she would not be guilty of copyright infringement because those 24 passages constitute a tiny fraction, less than 1%, of both novels and there is no sense in which they are of any particular importance. That falls well within the amount of copying permitted by the Fair Use doctrine. I doubt very much that any court would decide in favor of Ms. McCafferty on this point. Moreover, Ms. McCafferty would receive no actual damages because Ms. Viswanathan’s borrowing cannot be said to have reduced the market value of Ms. McCafferty’s work. I am not a lawyer, much less Ms. McCafferty’s lawyer, but I don’t think she’s got a case.

Turning now to plagiarism, I agree with Geoff that the similarities between certain passages in the two novels are very unlikely to be due to chance. I don’t think that a monkey sat down one day at Ms. Viswanathan’s computer and in the course of randomly pecking away at her keyboard typed them in. That means that they are not accidental., but there is a critical difference between not accidental and intentional. The decisive question with regard to the charge of plagiarism is whether Ms. Viswanathan knowingly copied from someone else’s work. I submit that there is no good reason to believe that she did and moreover that it is highly implausible that she did.

There is, of course, more. There’s an argument about why the author doesn’t think Viswanathan was aware of her borrowing. And there’s something else:

I’m writting about this partly because I think that an innocent young woman is being unfairly condemned, but there is a larger issue at stake here too, namely the increasing privatization of our common culture. No creative work, whether scientific or literary, is the exclusive product of any single individual, or even of a large group of individuals, such as a corporation. All such works build on a tradition of thousands of years created by innumerable people, from which they draw ideas, facts, words, and expressions. It is in the nature of culture for people to make use of elements of previous work in composing new ones, whether by reciting the same facts, presenting or disagreeing with the same ideas, pursuing the same themes and plots, and using the same words and expressions. In music one piece is influenced by another, sometimes only in broad matters of style or performance, sometimes in reusing sequences of a few notes.

It is reasonable to demand that people not present as their innovation ideas that they have taken from others, and in some situations, for economic reasons, to impose restrictions like those of copyright law, but we must recognize that fundamentally everyone borrows from others and that this is normal and proper.

By Bill Benzon on 01/09/07 at 07:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The McEwan case hardly even seems off-white, but the journalism promoting it looks jaundiced. (Even tomorrow’s Times Gove op-ed, maybe better placed with BB’s post, carries on without qualification.)

But what I find amusing is copied miscitations.

By nnyhav on 01/09/07 at 07:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s funny, I’ve copied that quote half a dozen times, including once for a term paper, and never noticed that error. Yes: it must be ‘be like’ or ‘seem like’.

By Conrad H. Roth on 01/09/07 at 08:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, isn’t Bill Poser of Language Log possibly guilty of a kind of “intentional fallacy” there? Which is to say, following Wimsatt/Beardsley, it’s not that we’re utterly uninterested in what the author might have been thinking, but rather that it’s always impossible to really know for sure.

Incidentally, my colleague Manish at Sepia Mutiny documented a number of other instances of plagiarism in these posts—it goes well beyond McAfferty. Once you reach a critical mass of borrowings (say, 50 instances) the pattern begins to seem overwhelming, even if the percentage of the text that’s plagiarized is still relatively small.

Nnyhav, I do think there’s just a little gray there McEwan. For the most part I agree with the defenses of what he was doing with the Andrews—building on other people’s work is in fact a totally legitimate part of the novelistic project (and I admire Colm Toibin’s The Master and Cunningham’s The Hours for exactly this). But by the “Kaavya” standard, there are possibly some instances of borrowing in his text that go a little further than the simple appropriation of technical jargon. I talked a little about it on my blog back in December.

Karl, now that you mention it, the whole “the publisher removed my quotations” defense does seem quite thin! Especially since Ouloguem does alter the passages he borrows from in fairly significant ways. (For instance, the opening passage of his novel and the opening passage of “The Last of the Just” have roughly the same language, though one is clearly referring to medieval England, while the other is clearly set in “Nakem”. Where would the quotations go?)

While I generally agree with you that we shouldn’t let Ouologuem’s current personality be a factor in the discussion, the thing about plagiarism is that it always seems to call attention to the figure of the author. His public statements at the time the book was released at least (through 1971) seem like they ought to be part of the picture (though again, I would try and stay away from his “intention,” if at all possible).

And Mwanafunzi, interesting point. I see what you’re saying about the importance of separating literary criticism/close reading from questions about market and audience, but I tend to find that difficult to do, especially with post-colonial literature. The context and the presentation of the author (especially the fetishization of “authenticity") has to be considered, though I don’t think that reduces the imperative to do serious, responsive close readings.

By Amardeep Singh on 01/09/07 at 09:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep, why would you think that a little technical jargon is the extent of what’s permissible? Novelists use specific persons as models, including what they’ve said or written, within the context of their own creative product. (What does this have to do with Kaayva, who was taking both in detail and in broad brush from another novel, another’s creative product, of the same genre?) But should a novelist identify that character with a specific person, they’re liable for libel. The whole McEwan fracas started with the Sunday Mail doing a piece per Andrews’ agent—does this not reflect upon the standard of judgment (and of journalism) being meted out? Probably doing the estate (and associated commission income) good, but it hardly informs all of the cases it’s being conflated with, unless the lesson being taught is in manufactured controversy, or in problematising black and white as merely different shades of gray.

By nnyhav on 01/09/07 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nnyhav, I grant that it is a manufactured controversy, and that journalists and perhaps bloggers (mea culpa) have improperly kept the word “plagiarism” in the discussion.

My thoughts about this are still evolving, especially on the issue of how or whether there is (or should be) a literary/aesthetic standard on plagiarism, and how such a standard might relate to the existing legal definition.

To work out an aesthetic approach to plagiarism that is as principled as possible, one might have to reject the “value added” argument, along with the “intention” argument I’ve already questioned.  There are undoubtedly a great many things McEwan invents in his novel (I actually loved it, and had a great time teaching it last spring). And the two texts are also, as you note, of very different genres—so by the given standards it could not legally be called plagiarism.

But take the following two passages. Andrews has this paragraph:

“Bit sort of tight. Could you loosen it?” ... Then as I did not think it would do any damage to loosen the gauze bows, I let go of his hand, stood up, undid the first and, as the sterile towel beneath slid off and jerked aside the towel above, very nearly fainted on his bed. The right half of his face and some of his head was missing. I had consciously to fight down waves of nausea and swallow bile, wait until my hands stopped shaking and dry them on my back before I could retie the bow… [After he dies in her arms, a Sister says to her] “Go and wash that blood off your face and neck, at once, girl! It’ll upset the patients."

And McEwan, in Atonement, has this one:

“These bandages are so tight. Will you loosen them for me a little?” She stood and peered down at his head. The gauze bows were tied for easy release ... She was not intending to remove the gauze, but as she loosened it, the heavy sterile towel beneath it slid away, taking a part of the bloodied dressing with it. The side of Luc’s head was missing ... She caught the towel before it slipped to the floor, and she held it while she waited for her nausea to pass ... fixed the gauze and retied the bows ... The Sister straightened Briony’s collar. “There’s a good girl. Now go and wash the blood from your face. We don’t want the other patients upset."

In comparing these two, one does notice the use of certain phrases from Andrews, such as “go and wash the blod from your face. We don’t want the other patients upset.” McEwan does of course acknowledge her book at the end of “Atonement.” But I’m wondering if the reader is also entitled, from a literary rather than a legal standpoint, to know about specific borrowings—phrases and situations—as they appear?

Even if not, I do think we have a certain interest as literary critics in studying the similarities—which is quite separate from the question of ethical evaluation.

By Amardeep Singh on 01/10/07 at 02:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep, I think that any such entitlement is fictitious, and serves to undermine the legal as well as literary sense of fair use. Not to mention that one element of the craft of literature is recontextualising in such a way as to disguise sourcing, to afford the reader the pleasure of the shock of recognition (and the scholar, raw material). (I also think that Jack Shafer should be barred from journalism. Oh, wait, he writes for Slate. Never mind.)

By nnyhav on 01/11/07 at 12:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lost Brother Finds Famous Writer (Ian McEwan has discovered he has an elder brother ...)
Plagiarist on Plagiarism (Lethem in Feb Harper’s, WBenjamin & Kaayva citings)

By nnyhav on 01/18/07 at 11:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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