Sunday, May 21, 2006
The Mark Steyn Code
You’ve probably heard that Mark Steyn seems to have a plagiarism problem. If you haven’t, the Steyn piece is here. Geoffrey Pullum’s original languagelog posts are here and here. The case against Steyn is laid out here and here. Just the sort of thing that deserves to get linked around for all to see and consider on the merits.
At the risk of preaching a sermon to Buddha, allow me to draw attention to a linguistic peculiarity of the Steyn column not noted by the languagelog crew. Steyn writes:
The linguist Geoffrey Pullum - or linguist Geoffrey Pullum, as novelist Dan Brown would say - identifies this as the anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier, to which renowned novelist Dan Brown is unusually partial. In Deception Point, in what must count as a wild experiment in form for him, he holds off on the AONP until the second sentence:
“Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years . . ."
Now: anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier. There’s a gem you couldn’t hope to fence on any literary market in the post-google age. There was no question Steyn had to credit Pullum for that much. Steyn’s defense is that this is sufficient. The case against him is that it is insufficient. Yet it is so distintinctively insufficient (or distinctively sufficient, if you buy Steyn’s assistant’s line): Steyn makes Pullum look like the straight man in his own joke. He comes off sounding like the pedantic parent of top-heavy terminology. Predictably, you get a Steyn defender leaving a comment that starts off like so:
Pullum wrote a boring academic article ...
Steyn comes off seeming as though he should get extra style points for brilliantly bagging Brown by neatly refunctionalizing this dull academic stiff as a merry slapstick.
You might analyze the trick thusly: Steyn produces a weak, false implicature, since “... to which renowned novelist Dan Brown is unusually partial” goes slightly out of its way to be consistent with Pullum having made no Dan Brown connection, let alone joke, when it would be as easy to mention that the category has lived its entire life in the very Dan Brown joke Steyn is telling. So we have violations of the Gricean maxims of quantity, relevance and manner (and a scrupulous skirting of strict quality violations).
This technique for stripping off the humor so you can paint it on again, and sign your own name, needs some pointlessly polysyllabic ‘phrasal implicature’ name. Or we could call it ‘premature dejoculation’. It’s sort of a straight man argument, as opposed to a strawman argument, if you see what I mean. So you can write sentences like: “Detection, in this well-trafficked place, could come in countless forms. Premature dejoculator Mark Steyn had endured the rebarbative remunerativeness of this terrain for years . . .”
Something like this problem actually arises in academic writing. In order to have something original to say, you pretend so-and-so didn’t see something about his own position which, plausibly, he really did. (Not a strawman argument, because you aren’t exactly attacking. A straight man argument. You need them to say something a bit obtuse, to make a space for your cleverness.) Of course, this wouldn’t be plagiarism. Nor do I mean to get Steyn off the hook by saying so.
By the by, I just remembered that I’ve emailed Geoffrey Pullum exactly once - to inform him in all mock-seriousness that I scooped this post of his with this post of mine, which acknowledged that Brian Weatherson made the point first. Pullum very scrupulously inquired whether I felt he should update his post to give credit where due. I said it didn’t matter that much. Point being: no need to be a jerk about these things, getting all ‘I’ll see you in court’.
I was going to post about this, but only in a Muntzian way. Kudos.
Re academic writing: doesn’t that mode occur more often in philosophy than say literary criticism or history? Maybe not, but that’s where it seems familiar to me.
Thanks, Jonathan. I think the technique is fairly ubiquitous, not just in philosophy. Whether or not you accept everything Harold Bloom says about misreading, for example, there is something to what the man says.
How do you figure?
Now you’re just misreading me for fun and profit.
I was just teaching the Phaedrus, and it’s true about how those sources can’t talk back, can’t defend themselves from hasty and deliberately myopic summary. Perhaps the internet can change this somehow.
Speaking of which, who wants to have a mini-symposium on “Plato’s Pharmacy?”
Say ‘know’ to drugs. That’s the only Platonic solution. I would actually be up for discussing “Plato’s Pharmacy”, because I recently reread it quite carefully and am actually more positive about it than I used to be.
I thought that was called Timese.
I submit that we actually have no choice but to call it “premature dejoculation”. The phenomenon would thus join premature vernaculation as but one of many mishaps to which overhasty speech is prey.
If comedy is theft, is dispossession nine-tenths of the laugh?