Scribbling woman put the Eliot quote I found last week into context – to wit, she’s actually read the whole essay, and knows her stuff. Reading her comments, I find myself wondering (again? like others? un-originally) whether we’re moving back into a culture that doesn’t adhere to the cult of originality and individual genius. These things appeared (largely) with Romanticism, although practical concerns of originality and copyright came earlier, with the printing press and publishing. Before that, did anyone really care? Shakespeare’s plays were hardly original – he just retold those old stories so damn well.

If we’re on our way to no longer valuing or caring about or even believing in originality, then the increases in plagiarism and the unbridled downloading of music and the remixes we see everywhere are symptoms of this cultural shift, or better, they’re what we’re moving towards.

How long, then, can the rules we’ve set in place based on the Romantic cult of the individual genius last? Copyright law is now one of the biggest industries in the world, somebody said (this is hearsay, I know, but an interesting idea) and universities still outlaws students who plagiarise, if they’re caught.

10 thoughts on “away from the cult of the individual genius

  1. Martin

    I agree, and find this (I call it a democratisation of expression) to be a generally good thing, but I suppose one could move too far in the other direction as this quite extraordinarily bad article indicates.

    But I still think there’s a distinction between quoting, remixing and intertextualising and plagiarism or vandalising. I just think the line is getting quite indistinct these days.

  2. Jill

    Good grief. What a, well, as you say, extraordinarily bad article. And there is a discinction, but it’s getting harder to explain it, I think.

  3. diane

    Isn’t there also a difference between self-conscious appropriation and re-use,
    and efforts (e.g. plagiarism) to pass off other people’s material as the product of one’s own “individual genius”?
    The latter actually reinforces the “cult of the individual genius” and shouldn’t be mistaken for something

    PS. Your parenthetical about “hearsay” — very funny in this context! 😉

  4. Jill

    Oh yes, I like that explanation, Diane: plagiarism reinforces the idea that you’re SUPPOSED to be an individual genius. That is, if it’s done on purpose and not, as some students claim, as a sort of just that’s the way we work collage of dozens of websites with no references.

    Is there a term for web-based hearsay?

  5. diane

    How about VossIP?

  6. Jill

    Heh 🙂

  7. Charley

    The Romantics have been a little bit unfairly saddled with the “original genius” stigma, as later theories of impersonality (such as the one presented by T. S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) actually build on Romantic sources such as Keatsí theory of negative capability. And the debate about plagiarism, and the difficulty of clearly distinguishing between creativity and various forms of borrowing, also concerns the Romantics – what with Chatterton, Macphersonís Ossian and Coleridgeís “Biographia Literaria.” This allegedly postmodern cluster of issues may have been more frequently discussed the last three or four decades, but it does go way back.

  8. Jill

    Charley, thanks! My knowledge of romanticism is unfortunately rather, um, well, I guess I haven’t really brushed up on it in recent years. It’d be really interesting to read more about these issues. Do you know of anyone who’s written about these things in connection with our contemporary isses?

  9. Charley

    Youíve put me on the spot, Jill – if your knowledge of romanticism is rusty, my knowledge of contemporary issues like this cannot even pretend to be in a state of dereliction or neglect! Nevertheless, a quick search on Amazon unearthed a book that seemed relevant: in 1999, State University of New York Press published a collection of essays (edited by Alice M. Roy and Lise Buranen) titled “Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World.” For an informative review of the book, see this link:

  10. scribblingwoman

    Riffing/mashing/stealing: a manifesto…

    Several days ago Jill Walker posted a passage from T.S. Eliot’s essay on Philip Massinger (1922): Immature poets imitate; mature……

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