The Quantum Pontiff

Sonnet 59

In the New York Times today there is an interesting article about Helene Hegemann whose debut novel, “Axolotl Roadkill,” drew wide praise. You know this story: turns out that the book contains plagiarized passages (plagiarism: check, sales rising: check.) What I find fascinating about the story, however, is not this rehash of a tried and true marketing tactic, but Ms. Hegemann’s defense of herself, summarized in this quote:

“There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.

Why do I love this quote? Well first of all I love her use of the word “authenticity,” by which she certainly means a definition of the word “authentic” along the lines of: “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” In this view of the word, if what you do rings true with others, well then you are legit. But, amusingly, authentic also means “not false or imitation”—a definition the victims of her plagiarism might find a bit off. Even more amusingly the word “authentic” has an etymology from the Greek “authentēs” meaning perpetrator or master. Ah, the forms of language, how I love thee!

But beyond her garbled defense, I also find the quote fascinating because of Ms. Hegemann use of the Ecclesiastes defense:

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun – Ecclesiastes 1:9-14

(Google this passage leads you to such fascinating acts of logic flagellation as “If there is nothing new under the sun, how is it possible for people to keep finding new interpretations of Scripture?”.) I’ve always found this passage, and this view of the world, to be a uniquely human bastardization of what we see going on around us in the universe. Now certainly what Ms. Hegemann means in this sentence is that all literature is—must be—derived from past works: that all the good ideas have already been written about. She might even believe that her version is better (cue Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote)!

But to me what this view of literature shows is a vast narrowness in thinking about originality in the world. It makes me wonder, for example if Ms. Hegemann has ever picked up a copy of the glossy journal “Science”? For example, in the copy of this rag sitting beside me in this coffee shop I find the article Faintest Thrum Heralds Quantum Machines. This New Focus article describes recent work on cooling quantum systems spatial degrees of freedom to their ground state (which apparently the group at UCSB has achieved…no paper yet!) Now I’m not going to argue that today we are faced with a glut of repetitious rehashing of the multitudes of ideas, acts, and creations of the past. But we are also surrounded by a glorious amount of new creation: today scientists have created a large mechanical device which is so cold that it has a single quanta of energy. Baring knowledge of a vast alien civilization among whom this achievement was a past record, this seems to me a singular original act.

Everywhere I look, I see original acts: homomorphic encryption, a field effect transistor in graphene, and the imprint of the Lie Group E8 on an experiment describing a perturbation of the transverse Ising model. Nothing original Ms. Hegemann? I beg to differ.

But Ms. Hegemann probably shouldn’t feel that bad. I mean, she’s got great company in her mistaken view of originality. Quote “Sonnet 59″:

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child.
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’er better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Yes, dear Shakespeare, you plagiarized, borrowed, rehashed, and “mixed” Greek tragedies. But you were dead wrong about your not being an original. And today those who can’t see the original in the world, well, perhaps they just need to change their job over from novelist over to today’s more creative work force: scientist.

Comments

  1. #1 John Sidles
    February 12, 2010

    Dave, thank you for using the word “AXOLOTL”. No student of Mad Magazine could ever forget this immortal poem …

    ————————–

    I Wandered Lonely as a Clod

    I wandered lonely as a clod,
    Just picking up old rags and bottles,
    When onward on my way I plod,
    I saw a host of axolotls;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    A sight to make a man’s blood freeze.

    Some had handles, some were plain;
    They came in blue, red pink, and green.
    A few were orange in the main;
    The damndest sight I’ve ever seen.
    The females gave a sprightly glance;
    The male ones all wore knee-length pants.

    Now oft, when on the couch I lie,
    The doctor asks me what I see.
    They flash upon my inward eye
    And make me laugh in fiendish glee.
    I find my solace then in bottles,
    And I forget them axolotls.

    ————————–

    If you remember *this* poem from your childhood, then you predate the Standard Model by quite a few years! :)

  2. #2 ijc
    February 12, 2010

    The book “Prime Obsession” relates an anecdote in which David Hilbert is told that one of his students has left mathematics to take up poetry. Hilbert’s response was “I can’t say I’m surprised. I never thought he had enough imagination to be a mathematician.”

  3. #3 Rocky Humbert
    February 12, 2010

    Dave – I don’t understand your point….
    1) In term of the universe, what’s “new” in the universe since the beginning of the universe? Not much really. It’s just doing it’s universal thing. (Note that I’m not limiting myself to just our Sun. I’m talking universe.) What “new” with the universe? Really? Huh?
    2) But that doesn’t conflict with the reality that man is constantly figuring out a new understanding of the Universe. “Did man INVENT mathematics? Or did man DISCOVER mathematics?” Mathematics were always there…right?
    3) Neither of these statements excuse plagiarism or the theft of intellectual property. That’s a legal construct — which has nothing to do with the universe!

    Bottom line: She needs a lawyer. Not a philospher. Or scientist. Or cleric.

  4. #4 Joe Renes
    February 12, 2010

    Google this passage leads you to such fascinating acts of logic flagellation as “If there is nothing new under the sun, how is it possible for people to keep finding new interpretations of Scripture?”.

    Somehow I was surprised that “Scripture” was the last word in the sentence; I swear I was expecting it to end with “quantum mechanics”.

  5. #5 Falk
    February 12, 2010

    Helene Hegemann’s defense is indeed quite remarkable. The NYTimes article also mentions, that her book was nominated for a prize at the Leipzig book fair. After the plagiarism was revealed. Seems plagiarism is nowadays a fully accepted method of writing.

  6. #6 Neil B
    February 12, 2010

    With all that’s been said and written over the years, it seems to me hard for one to assure he or she hasn’t indulged in unintentional plagiarism (or “near plagiarism” – note the fuzzy and debatable boundary of what is “too close.”) I figure that would e.g. be especially hard to avoid in philosophical writing.

  7. #7 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 13, 2010

    Reposted from a thread on John Shirley’s facebook page.
    wtf
    Author, 17, Says It’s ‘Mixing,’ Not Plagiarism – NYTimes.com
    http://www.nytimes.com
    Outsized praise for a new novel quickly turned to a torrent of outrage as its young German author admitted to using full passages from another work.
    ===========================
    Jonathan Vos Post
    The plaintiff requests that the judge order a “mixing” of bank accounts.
    ===========================
    Dana Garden
    Everything’s a mash-up these days, it seems…Grendel is a great book with extensive passages from Alfred North Whitehead, but Gardner acknowledged his appropriation, rather than sneaking around.
    ===========================
    Dana Garden
    At some point, doesn’t the old Twelve Plots thing come into play?
    ===========================
    Gary Roscoe Johnson
    Disney copyrighted all those folk tales which should by all rights be public domain.
    ===========================
    Jonathan Vos Post

    Dana Garden, Gary Roscoe Johnson: you can NOT copyright a plot. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, known as the Copyright Clause, the Copyright and Patent Clause (or Patent and Copyright Clause), the Intellectual Property Clause and the Progress Clause, empowers the United States Congress:
    “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries….”

    The clause only permits protection of the writings of authors (the actual text, not the plot) and the discoveries of inventors. Hence, writings may only be protected to the extent that they are “original” — and “inventions” must be truly inventive and not merely obvious improvements on existing knowledge. The term “writings of authors” appears to exclude non-human authorship such as painting by
    chimpanzees and computer code written by programmed computers,[See Compendium II of Copyright Office Practices § 503.03(a) (1984) (“In order to be entitled to copyright registration, a work must be the product of human authorship. Works produced by mechanical processes or random selection without any contribution by a human author are not registrable.”).] but the issue has not been tested in litigation.

    But wait until an artificial intelligence has a good enough attorney!
    ===========================
    Jonathan Vos Post
    As an author, and as a scientist, all that I own is my intellectual property and my reputation. If somebody steals my intellectual property, or defames me, I must choose whether or not to sue the perpetrator in court. When I’ve had to (a last resort, due to expense and protracted pain) I am almost universally supported by encouragement from other content creators and people who depend on their reputations. If I want to give away my writing free (as on a blog) then I am free to do so. If I make self deprecating comments, then I am free to do so. But only people who make their living off intellectual property fully understand what an existential threat there is in the likes of Helene Hegemann.
    ===========================

  8. #8 Mugizi
    February 13, 2010

    The article seems to indicate that it is just one page and a few phrases in the book.

    Also the awards jury seems to have been forgiving because it was seen as a deliberate “postmodern experiment” rather than as an attempt at “cheating.” (although I can see others are far more skeptical)

    Overall, I am sympathetic to the idea of resampling, remixing and combining other people’s ideas to create something new. Isn’t that what a lot of scientific research is all about anyway? You take other people’s ideas, tweak them and extend them with your own brilliant insights and – voila! – something new. OK so there is the whole citation thing, but novels typically don’t have citations.

    Perhaps Ms. Hegemann can agree to kick a fixed percentage to “Airen” and everyone will be happy.

  9. #9 metin2 hileleri
    May 8, 2010

    The clause only permits protection of the writings of authors (the actual text, not the plot) and the discoveries of inventors. Hence, writings may only be protected to the extent that they are “original” — and “inventions” must be truly inventive and not merely obvious improvements on existing knowledge. The term “writings of authors” appears to exclude non-human authorship such as painting by
    chimpanzees and computer code written by programmed computers,[See Compendium II of Copyright Office Practices § 503.03(a) (1984) (“In order to be entitled to copyright registration, a work must be the product of human authorship. Works produced by mechanical processes or random selection without any contribution by a human author are not registrable.”).] but the issue has not been tested in litigation.

    But wait until an artificial intelligence has a good enough attorney!

    thanks…nice post

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